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.