Recent generations of overseas Christian workers, especially in ‘frontier’ mission fields, have been plagued by a brittle bone ecclesiology – a lack of confidence in the church to effect change in the world. Instead, many missionaries seem to believe in a fragile, fractured church that is unable to support the weight of the body of Christ as it works God’s will on earth. I think this underdeveloped ecclesiology is one of the most tragic concepts to seep into a missionary’s thinking, for, as I will try to show, it drains the Gospel from their preaching and yanks the teeth out of their mission fervor.

How is it manifested?

The past couple years have unfortunately given us many opportunities to see the modern generation’s eroded ecclesiology up close. We host several missions trips each year – some are groups from a particular church, others are associated with a parachurch organization. Among the latter, I have rejoiced to meet many passionate young believers who desire to see the Gospel’s reach extend into the darkest places on the earth. But I have simultaneously lamented their almost entire divorce from the church. Few of them have strong relationships with their local churches, fewer still have any interest in church-planting or training pastoral leadership (ironically, at a time when there is a renewed emphasis on these things in the States). They’ll discuss emotionally their dreams of bringing mercy and justice to the world’s orphans, sex workers, and impoverished. Talk to them about the church, and there’s almost an embarrassed silence.

Many of the missions trips that they have taken have little or no connection to the ministry of a local church. The ministries they dream of starting have nothing to do with starting or growing churches. They barely have time for church attendance back home, and many of them give up the habit altogether once they arrive on foreign soil! One of their favorite topics is ‘rethinking’ church, and their role models are generally those who advocate leaving the pew to make the world a better place. Blake Mycoskie of Tom’s Shoes is far more inspiring to them than Hudson Taylor of the China Inland Mission. And nothing seems to stifle their zeal more than the four walls of the church.

In short, they want to change the world, but they have no confidence in the church to effect that change – they look for another avenue.

What is its cause?

Who knows for sure  –  but in recent discussions with colaborers we thought of some things that might be contributing factors. Maybe you can think of others…

First, it is has been in vogue for some time to mock the church. Of course I’m not saying that there is no fodder for satire in the average local church or in denominational traditions. But some of these jabs are just a little too vicious to be modest self-deprecation. At what point do we protest? That’s the espoused bride of Christ we’re talking about! Can we despise her for not being relevant enough, or strong enough, or cool enough? We ought to cherish and honor her because she is the beloved of our Savior. I’m not talking about ‘churches’ that have denied the Gospel. It’s one thing to rebuke your brother’s fiancée for unfaithfulness to him; it’s quite another to mock her for her hairstyle.

Second, many students have had a more authentic experience of Christianity in parachurch organizations. Many of them have will give a testimony similar to this: ‘I grew up in church, but it was always my parents that pushed me to go. When I went to college, I went wild. Then I was invited to a Bible study on campus, and I saw people who deeply believed in God.’ Regardless of the degree to which their impression of their childhood churches are accurate, it is easy to understand how believers with this kind of background will easily make the connection that church equals dead orthodoxy, parachurch organization equals vibrant faith.

Third, there is a misunderstanding of the relationship between the universal church and the local church. If all believers on the earth constitute the body of Christ, and the Lord is present anytime that two or three of us are gathered together, then it might seem to mean that the official congregating of the church is a luxury, or even an excess! Auditoriums, pulpits, pews, service times – all have been criticized as an abandoning of the simplicity of Christian fellowship and witness in the world. These are big ecclesiological questions, and I won’t try to say here what others have explained much better elsewhere. I’ll just say that as church-planters in a place where it is illegal, we’ve had to spend some time pondering which parts of church are essential. And one of the simplest observations to be made about the early church is that they gathered together regularly as a church. I don’t see where there’s room in the Scripture for the kind of thinking that says, ‘we need to go out and be the church in the world.’ Every church we see in Scripture has an unstylish habit of ‘coming in’ to be the church in the world. But the freshest missionary forces in the world are largely convinced that they can ‘be the church’ without so much as attending one.

Which brings us to the fourth factor, the imposition of a false dichotomy between words and works. How many times in the last decade have you heard someone quote Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa or George Washington or someone as saying, ‘Preach the Gospel; use words if necessary.’ The implication is that what the world really needs is to see our actions, not hear our words. As others have wisely pointed out, this is like saying, ‘Feed the hungry; use food if necessary.’ The only thing that we as believers have to meet the deepest need of the world is the words of a message about Christ. Of course, our actions as believers are important – they may amplify or muffle the message. The dichotomists may also be heard saying something like, ‘What good will all our sermons do a person if they have no clean drinking water or shoes to wear?’ What breathtaking blindness to the immensity of the wrath of God toward sin and the glories of his grace in the Gospel! There is no cure for such blindness but salvation! But for most young aspiring missionaries, their dichotomy is by no means so pronounced. They rightly feel moved to compassion for the sick and poor. But they are very wrongly more moved by the urgency of that crisis to the neglect of the spiritual peril the sick and the poor are in.

Fifth, I personally have found many young missionaries to be intimidated by the church. The modern missionary movement (from William Carey on) has often not been church-driven. One of the results of that has been that many missionaries of this era have not come from places of church leadership in their own country. To put it bluntly, you don’t need a church to come as a missionary to China these days. So many have found their way all the way to the mission field with virtually no training in leading, growing, or planting churches. They can witness, and they can serve. They can build a church building, but they can’t build a church. These unchurched missionaries (!) respond to a strong ecclesiology in different ways. There are some who bristle – angrily denouncing the ‘professionalism’ of the church. And there are some who just feel stuck. With no church experience or training, they just don’t know how to have a meaningful relationship with the church. So they stick to the more clearly marked parachurch path.

Six. Last of all, basest of all. To some, church is just not fun. It’s boring. It’s dull. It’s slow. Many wouldn’t say that, but watch their otherwise boundless zeal fizzle into sleepiness when you bring them into a church service. Their feelings about working in a church would be similar to that of most teenage boys feelings about working in a nursery. They miss entirely the glory and the miracle of Christ’s church.

Too long, I know. But this is a great burden to me. Will take another post to jot some thoughts about why and how we should go about healing this tragic wound in the modern missionary force.

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22 Comments on “Ecclesioporosis”

  1. Parallax Perspective May 9, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    The rise of short term missions may also be a factor, especially in your context. If someone goes to China for a couple years, they will rarely have the time, experience, or language knowledge necessary to start local churches. One solution might be to partner short-term evangelistic works with long-term church planters. I am aware of a couple groups that have done a good job with this in China.

    • Vengador May 15, 2012 at 9:17 pm #

      Right on in my opinion. There is a history that deserves to be traced out – the rise and impact of short term missions. For all the good they have brought, there is unquestionably some drawbacks, one of which you have drawn attention to here. I love short term missions, and wouldn’t want to reduce their influence – but I agree that much would be gained from linking short-term trips with established ministries. Among the benefits to be gained would be a dislodging of the illusion so common among short-termers that the work they’re doing is the same as a strategic long term mission.

    • davidxing February 6, 2013 at 3:09 am #

      hey dude, i’m very keen on partnering church plants in china at the end of the year for around 3 months. do you have any contacts for established churches that are situated in “mandarin”- speaking areas?

  2. geneva May 10, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    Love this article! Always a great read. This is very scary and so accurate. Can’t wait to hear more.

    Many times, these “Independent Missionaries” may not be aware of their true motives of self glorification. They approach missions with “This is what I can do for you” instead of “How can I help you, the church”

    I think, in many ways, this trend is because the churches don’t have descent missionary training, that usually starts on a short term mission. I led a trip to Haiti without the proper training and it turned out a mess. Since then, I moved and the church I attend now had a program called, Culture Link, that was a mandetory program for those who want to lead a trip. It was fantastic!! I was able to see the mistakes I made the first time.

    It’s focus is the team becoming disciples for Christ. It teaches you how to select your team, grow them in Christ during preparation, how to blend into the culture and discuss your testimony with the nationals. It also explains how to re-enter back into you own society, which we know can be very difficult once you return from an extremely poor country.

    My reason for discussing this Culture Link program is because it usually starts with a short term mission trip. If they can experience the Body of Christ at work as it should be, then maybe they wouldn’t be so turned off of

    • Vengador May 15, 2012 at 9:11 pm #

      I think you’re making a correct observation there, geneva. Young people need training to teach them to interact meaningfully with churches. More on that later….

  3. Jack May 15, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    There is obviously a need to draw a distinction, as you have done in previous posts, between those who are church planting missionaries and those who are not.

    However, although the work of the church planting missionary is indispensable in reaching the spiritual needs of the lost (preaching the Gospel, planting churches, training leaders etc.), there is still a need for organizations that will minister to the physical needs of the neglected. Throughout both developed and developing countries around the world, people are suffering from hunger, abuse, slavery, disease, political and religious persecution etc. And what kind of people have historically cared about these needs enough to do anything about them? By and large, it has been Christians, Christians who have sacrificed both financially and physically to care for “the least of these.” Christians have led the way. And so it should be.

    As for why some young people today are joining para-church organizations to meet these needs? Perhaps it is merely practical–many para-church organizations already have the framework in place for the work to be done. Perhaps it is because they think their local church isn’t interested in helping. And perhaps it is because they know that if we just have more of the same (preaching, planting, training) these other needs will go unmet. And although you are right to say that the eternal salvation of a soul is more important than a pair of shoes, the Bible does still says, “The righteous considereth the cause of the poor: but the wicked regardeth not to know it” (Pro 29:7).

    So I believe we must never downplay the need for more bonafide, New Testament missionaries who will lead the way in preaching the Gospel, planting churches, and training the next generation of leaders (on the contrary, we must preach it louder than ever before!), but at the same time, if someone told me they wanted to join a Christian based human rights organization drawing attention to the ongoing political and religious persecution in China, I would be thrilled.

    Because if Christians do not lead the way in caring for these people, then who will?

    • Vengador May 15, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

      Hey Jack thanks for your comment! You make a great point – the answer to the dilemma is certainly not, ‘neglect the needy’. I hope that I am not understood that way. Rather, my point for the post – which hopefully will become clearer in the next – is that all of these needs are best met through the power of local churches. My reference to Tom’s Shoes, for instance, is by no means knocking the great thing they are doing – rather it is just to illustrate that by far the more favored strategy of young people is to bypass the church in addressing the world’s needs. And I believe this is a mistake. Because it is a good work to feed the hungry, dig wells, and put shoes on children, I want to entrust these responsibilities to local churches. To illustrate in kind, if someone told me they wanted to start an organization like that to bring attention to the persecuted, I would tell them that I have no hope of them accomplishing anything in that way. Certainly not impossible – just far less likely. I for one have precious little confidence in any organization besides a church.
      Thanks again for your insightful comment – I hope you’ll let us know your thoughts about the follow-up post!

      • Jack May 20, 2012 at 6:43 pm #

        FYI, the Christian based human rights organization I was referring to is China Aid. There is an article today on regarding its influence in the Chen Guangcheng case.

      • davidxing February 6, 2013 at 3:15 am #

        hey mate, i stumbled across this article by chance, and everything that you put forward, God has really put upon my heart lately that the church is really the avenue for which gospel-work is done.

        I recently went on a trip to China, and I was pretty convicted of thinking of missionary work through partnering up with a local church. At the moment, its just for short-term, say 3 months?

        I was wondering whether you could help assist me in finding a local church in an area in China that is predominantly “Mandarin speaking”, or maybe in Shanghai, since that is where my parents are from.

        Anyways, great articles man!

  4. Jack May 15, 2012 at 9:19 pm #

    I will definitely check back to see your next posts on this topic. I would be interested to read how you feel the local church can replace the invaluable work being done by charitable organizations around the world. In my experience, not a single church I have been a part of has done anything to address these needs. Furthermore, many churches not only do nothing themselves, but they discourage their membership from giving to any organization that does.

    Obviously, if we win every last sinner to Christ and every Christian becomes a perfect model of the life of Christ, we will have effectively eradicated all of the world’s social ills… but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In the mean time, I feel there is a definite need for Christian charitable organizations to carry out the work that a single, independent, local congregation cannot do on its own.

  5. Jack May 15, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Or here’s a crazy thought: If we really are serious about fulfilling this biblical mandate, perhaps someone should start an independent baptist charitable organization… call it, World Baptist Charity Inc. It could provide the framework for independent baptist “charity workers” sent from local churches to raise the support and reach the “charity field.” They could start orphanages, hospitals, and schools in third world countries and combat malnutrition, disease, slavery, and other forms of oppression.

    Hey, that almost sounds like a good idea…

  6. Jack May 15, 2012 at 9:37 pm #

    …churches could hold annual “charity conferences” and veteran “charity workers” could travel the circuit and preach about every Christian’s responsibility to care for the neglected people of the world. Visiting “charity workers” could showcase the work they have done on the field, how many children were rescued from sexual slavery in Cambodia, how many schools were started for girls in Afghanistan, how many were treated at a hospital in Niger…

    Sorry, getting a little carried away.

    • Geneva May 16, 2012 at 5:58 am #


      What I understand Jack is saying is there is no spiritual benefit in these secular charitable groups. They are focused on saving the earthly body. No Eternal perspective.
      Even with church supported missionaries, being alone in the field grows wary for one’s spirit, thus the importance of the communion of a local church. Ultimately, the best solution is to train the local pastor in the ways of Christ and send them out into their own country. Let God do the rest.

  7. Septimus May 17, 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    What ultimately is goin to matter are those things that won’t get burnt up in the fire when we stand before the judgement seat of Christ.

    Those things that last obviously is what was mandated by God. Anything done (even good deeds) outside of God’s leading is hay wood and stubble that will vainly be forgotten for the rest of eternity.

    The ONLY organization in this earth that has the authority to fulfill the great commission is the local church. This is missions. Charity for the poor fits into missions as a tool to reach the lost, and again, only the church has the authority to win, baptist, and disciple. The scriptures are clear that God is no respector of persons. God doest love me morethan tony Tim who had to live his life on crutches and beg for meals, but God bless those with abundance so because God wants to love Tiny Tim though the abubdance if others. To ignore this principle would be to ignore God’s divine purpose in the location, parents, and other unchangeable circumstances God gives us. So, biblically, any christian para church org that wishes to be obedient to what Jesus commanded must do so under the umbrella of a local church.

    My other question would be, why would anyone take the time to offer aid to ailing people, but ignore the deeper need to escape eternal flame? I would be in absolute favor of local churches sponsoring aid to people’s with the intent of winning opportunity to give the Gospel, but what biblically can a para church org do if they only can tend to physical ailments?

    • Jack May 18, 2012 at 9:21 am #

      I don’t mean to hog the comment section, I’m really sorry, but I just wanted to say something brief in reply:

      The question you asked starting with the phrase, “Why would anyone take the time to offer aid to ailing people…” is representative of a particular attitude towards the Christian life.

      There are some who think, “Why would anyone take the time to help someone… why would anyone take the time to be someone’s friend… why would anyone take the time to listen to someone’s burdens… why would anyone take the time to do something kind… if it is not ultimately for the purpose of giving them a gospel tract and winning them to Christ?”

      But the last time I checked, the Samaritan did not stop to help the man who was dying on the side of the road after being beaten by thieves just so that he could win him to Christ; he stopped to help because it was the right thing to do. Meanwhile, it was the Pharisee and the Levite who did not “take the time to offer aid…” perhaps because they thought it was not their Christian duty, perhaps because they saw no hope in winning that man to Christ, perhaps because they were afraid that being seen with such a man would soil their Christian testimony…

      Anyway, I think there is a case to be made for doing good just for the sake of the good that is to be done, if not for anything else. After all, Jesus said that our love is to exceed the love of the Pharisees, the publicans, and the heathen. It is to be like the love of our Heavenly Father who makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. It is to give without any thought of getting back.

      • Geneva May 18, 2012 at 10:29 am #

        Aren’t we glad we have Soveriegn God who uses all people, christian and non christian, for His glory!!

  8. Septimus May 18, 2012 at 11:01 am #


    You have a good point, which I wholly agree with. But I hope what you got from my post was that we shouldn’t do good when its in our power to do so.

    The part you left out of my question was “…ignore the deeper need to escape eternal flame?”

    Knowing from Scripture there is more to it than just a helping hand, what else might you be accountable for at the judgement seat of Christ? If you neglect that man’s need for salvation, but only tended to his wounds without any gospel witness, will Christ find lack in your service?

    Even in the case of the parable of the Samaritan, there is deeper truths to be learned. The parable of the sower wasn’t given so we can learn how to be good farmers. The parable of the Samaritan wasn’t given just so we learn how to do good deeds. But rather the man robbed in the story is us, in our need of the Savior, which was depicted by the Samaritan. The value of the Samaritan parable is to be found when we identify to be the one robbed, beaten, poor, and dying; rather than identifying our self to be the hero.

  9. @MattAllenPNG May 25, 2012 at 12:41 pm #

    Wow…and an interesting can of worms thou hast opened, my friend. Christian Aid vs. Local Church-only missions. I’m not quite sure you intended that discussion to begin; nevertheless, this is the direction it has taken. My two cents is that Jesus went about healing before he began saving. While cliche, it has been said that “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” The problem arises when the caring for physical overshadows the caring for spiritual.

    I would like to come back to your original thought–para-church vs. church-sent missions.
    I really wonder how many of our independent Baptist churches that are “sending” missionaries are actually “sending” them. I think we are “endorsing” but not “sending” our missionaries. And then we use our endorsement as a claim that we are “local church.”
    Example: John grows up in the local church, goes to Bible College, gets a burden for foreign missions, comes home and tells his pastor who then tells his friends, and next thing we know, John has finished deputation. Right before he leaves, the local church lays hands on him, commissions him, and sends him to the field. This is what I mean by “blessing his ministry.”

    But the Biblical example of sending the missionary stems from Acts 13, where the Holy Spirit told the church to separate Barnabas and Saul. The church at Antioch spent time in prayer and fasting and then they sent these two missionaries.

    It seems we are doing it backwards–we are “blessing” the ambitions of a man instead of listening to the leading of the Holy Spirit. All the while, pointing fingers at those that are going without the blessing of a local church.

    Please know that I am speaking merely commentary here, not condemnation.

  10. Becky Baylies November 18, 2012 at 11:40 pm #

    This was the best explanation of what I feel is the Church’s biggest challenge in our day- remaining faithful to Truth while being culturally responsive – and doing both while not falling into the trap of secular social justice ideas. I see love and mercy as our role and ultimately justice as God’s. Thanks for this. So clear.


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    […] Ecclesioporosis | Part 1 […]

  2. Ecclesioporosis, Part 3 | The Gospel in China - March 28, 2013

    […] lack of confidence in the local church as the vehicle for realizing change in the world. In the first post, we looked at some of the factors contributing to this condition. In the second, we examined some […]

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