Ecclesioporosis, Part 2

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Again, what I mean by this is the lack of confidence in the church so prevalent among recent generations of Christian workers. There was a good amount of feedback to the last post, but interestingly, no one seems to have too much doubt about the basic premise: many Christian young people don’t dare place the weight of their ambitions onto the purportedly fragile bones of the church. Below a bit, I want to share some thoughts about why this is such a serious defect in our thinking.

The general response to the last post veered in a direction I didn’t intend. The long-standing question many of the comments wanted to grapple with was, ‘Does the church have an obligation to meet physical needs in the world as well as spiritual needs?’ Whereas the question I was trying to highlight was, ‘Why are young believers opting out of the church altogether in their quest to change the world?’ It’s not that they’re leading churches to alleviate physical suffering. It’s that they’re abandoning churches to go alleviate physical and spiritual suffering! Meaning, when they want to feed the hungry or share the Gospel, the last thing on their mind is, ‘how does the church figure into this problem?’ Regardless of your view on the scope of the church’s mission, it can be no less than disconcerting that a young believer has more confidence in a non-profit organization to stop human trafficking or train Christian leaders than local churches.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from with this, too, lest I be misunderstood. As many others may relate to, I ate a bad piece of ecclesiology when I was just starting my walk with Christ, and to this day, a strong ecclesiastical odor can turn my stomach. But in my time as a missionary in China, I have become more firmly persuaded of the importance of a robust doctrine of the church. Because there are forces at work here that will only be properly addressed by the Church. Let me give you a couple reasons why I’m persuaded a lack of confidence in the church will result in a less-than-effective missionary generation, both in China and around the globe (please keep in mind that by ‘in the church’ I don’t necessarily mean full-time ministry, but rather attending, serving, working through and submitting to a local church).

1. The Church is needed to fulfill our mission.

I hear short-termers saying things like, ‘Orphans… that’s my thing.’ Or, ‘I’m just really burdened for those in the sex trade.’ These are all good and just inclinations of a heart impacted by the Gospel. But further inquiry reveals that what these students usually mean is, ‘I want to meet this kind of need, not the kind that is solved by traditional church ministry – so it only makes sense for me to work in some kind of secular or parachurch organization.’ Though I readily concede there is no necessary dichotomy between making disciples and meeting material needs, there is quite evidently such a dichotomy in the thinking of these workers – many are consciously rejecting the church as ‘just for disciple-making’.

But if you take the Great Commission as paradigmatic for the Christian’s life, then you will agree that we as Christians cannot bifurcate our mission into Great Commission work and ‘other’. That is, whatever else Christians may be doing, they may not stop making disciples. Even some of those writers and speakers most committed to social justice affirm strongly that Christians cannot legitimately extend help to the needy without also extending the offer of the Gospel.

As Americans can very easily make friends in China, often we hear people that we witness to here say something like, ‘I’d like to be your friend, but I’m not very interested in hearing about your faith.’ Well, that’s gonna be a problem, isn’t it? The Christian’s ‘run-your-mouth-about-Jesus’ switch doesn’t have an off position. You’re either going to resign yourself to hearing about Jesus, or you aren’t going to want to be my friend! And this must hold true, even if I’m roofing huts or feeding orphans. Otherwise, why I may be doing part of my mission in a given place, I am leaving it seriously incomplete.

So this is the first reason I’m saddened by this generation’s reluctance to passionately commit to the church – they are essentially deciding to not make disciples, and therefore to ignore Christ’s mandate. Commitment to disciplemaking will naturally lead to faithful participation in a church – in the same way that parents desiring to raise healthy children will naturally seek to maintain a good home environment.

2. The Church is firmly backed by the authority of Christ.

Never underestimate the enemy. Believers ought to understand better than anyone how deeply evil is entrenched and fortified in the world. As we move to engage it, we must assess what power is at our disposal – what hope do we have to make a difference? And while it probably wouldn’t be expedient to discuss them all here, the church clearly has powers and authority that no other organization on earth has.

This power leads to the conclusion that investments in God’s kingdom are safely protected. Our church’s feeble efforts will often be accompanied by the miraculous and supernatural. So a sense of our own weakness should drive us all the more willingly to the church. While a local church will occasionally fall to the devil’s forces, for the Christian there can be no serious questioning of the longevity of the church. We have no surety that the gates of hell will not prevail against any other organization in the world.

The authorization of Christ also gives those working in the church a deep sense of meaningfulness. Not only are we involved in something bigger than ourselves, we are even involved in something bigger than a village’s hunger or a city’s injustice. We are involved in the plot whose inciting incident is nothing short of Creation, whose climax is nothing short of the Cross, and whose resolution is nothing short of Eternal Glory! When making disciples in a local church, we need never doubt our work is that prescribed by Christ himself.

This is why it is so tragic to me that a young person would have no desire to work as part of the church! It is exchanging the power of the body of Christ for that of another body. And it virtually guarantees that the Christian’s work will not be as mighty or as meaningful.

3. The Church is uniquely suited to address the complexity of sin.

Ask almost anyone who is involved in what is now typically referred to as ministries of justice or mercy. Ask them if it’s easier or harder than they thought to get drug addicts to kick the habit, to get kids to stay in school, to get prostitutes out of bars, to get clean drinking water to remote villages. I think we all know the answer and its cause: the darkness of this earth is far more tangled and complex than it appears on the surface level. All these issues stem from the sinfulness of man, and sin can never be contained to one sector of our individual lives or of society at large. The roots of various sins are intertwined and reinforced – so uprooting a particular manifestation of sin and its consequences is never a simple procedure.

While there’s much talk about holistic ministry by those advocating a de-churched solution to the world’s darkness, I would suggest that the church is the only organization in the world multifaceted enough to address sin in all its complexity! How? Think of the average non-profit organization (Christian or otherwise). In most cases, their forces are rallied together to fight a single facet of the world’s darkness. The problem is, when they encounter the 101 other sinful issues contributing to the plight of their beneficiaries, they must either ignore them or lament that such things are outside their jurisdiction. This is why countless noble ambitions to help addicts, for example, fall flat – they wanted to help people break the chains of addiction; they just didn’t realize how many chains there were.

The church on the other hand, bearing the simple yet profound mission of disciplemaking, not only can, but must fight all the manifestations of sin in the potential disciple’s life, however so many they be. Instead of addressing a single facet on a large scale, churches everywhere fight all facets of evil at a personal level. And neither will a disciplemaking church foolishly think the job is done when a particularly glaring disfunction is rectified. A teenage girl decides not to abort her baby – the crisis pregnancy center is done with her; the church has just begun. A village survives a famine – time for the relief organizations to move on; time for the church to dig in.

4. The Church is deeply motivated to fight injustice.

As with any other intimidating task, motivation is crucial in all of these social goods we have talked about. Because there is so much fighting against these redemptive changes in a sinful world, there is no place for the nonchalant or the laidback – they will quickly be knocked out of the work altogether, or they will settle in to less-than-effective roles.

What does deep motivation look like? Well, it sacrifices – it gives of its own good to further the cause. So, for instance, deep motivation will find a way to cut office expenses to keep money moving toward the needs being met. Deep motivation will seek to streamline the process whereby needs get met – cutting out bureaucracy wherever possible. Deep motivation will not take ‘no’ for an answer and find a way around a hundred obstacles to get to the needy. As someone who has lived by the direct support of local churches for years (through the better part of an economic recession), I have been a witness to the willingness of churches to do just that.

So if a flood caused serious damage on a small island and I wanted to help, I would be far more confident in giving my money to a local church than to a non-profit. More specifically, I would be more confident that that church would use my donation to meet needs in a simple, generous, wise manner – yes, more so than a large-scale non-profit relief organization rolling in to save the day (how much did ‘rolling in’ cost again?) And if I wanted to be involved in the work myself, I’d much rather be on the church’s team than on the other.

What is that motivation, so much deeper than guilt or pity? The Gospel is the bedrock of all our good works. We remember that Jesus laid down his life for us, and that alone prepares us to make the sacrifices necessary to effect change in the world. His cross defuses pride – the pride that threatens to burn up the hearts of the philanthropic.

So those are the reasons I don’t have any confidence in proposed world change that doesn’t include the church. Still skeptical? I know many people can’t help but feel this is limiting. The first doubt I usually hear voiced about this perspective concerns scaleability. ‘Well, sure,’ you think, ‘that might work well for a local church, but one church can’t be expected to address the needs of the whole world.’ Doubtless. But that’s not really my point. What I’m trying to say is that wherever there are needs that need to be met, the best way for a Christian to meet them is via a church in that place (if necessary, via planting one in that place). Because our definition of ‘meeting the needs’ is so different than the world’s. Better to succeed on a small scale than to fail on a large one. And, really, the church is scaleable – or, better yet, the church is reproducible. Every church in the world is a potential catalyst for change.

So (if you still have any interest in the topic) best use one last post to talk about some practical ways we might go about restoring some of that lost confidence.

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13 Comments on “Ecclesioporosis, Part 2”

  1. Phil M July 6, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    Good stuff and I heartily agree, especially with young energetic Christians being involved in the Church. Do you think there could be a place for organizations like IJM that understand the complexities of a certain issue and the legal system surrounding it, training local church leaders to better address it? Or a famine relief non-profit connecting churches in areas of need with supplies of food? I’m curious if you see a potential place for any christian organizations outside the church.

  2. reinboda July 6, 2012 at 11:45 pm #

    I agree with you 100% of what you said. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. The purpose of a missionary is the win people to Christ and start churches and train men to be preachers and then start another church. The local church (and I believe it should be a Baptist church) is what a believer should join whether in your own country or in a foreign land.

    I am praying for you and your family JT. Has your brother decided what mission field he is going to?

  3. reinboda July 6, 2012 at 11:56 pm #

    Keep the faith, never give up. I am praying for you and your family.
    Jesus and many others have given their lives for there faith and the church.

    Always defend the church like you have been. There are to few who do any more.

    Has your brother become a missionary yet?

    Look at the sermons on http://www.MSNBC.com There are sermons that go back to 2006.

  4. Mark Pereira July 11, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    I have enjoyed this article tremendously. We can never go wrong in promoting God’s plan for this age – the local church. Even this week, I met a young man, just finished high school, wondering if he should take a year off to do social work. In his mind was only the possibility of doing it through a non-profit organization and no thought at all about doing it through a local church. We need to teach our people how important is the church to God.

  5. Jack July 17, 2012 at 4:09 am #

    I have been looking forward to your follow up post on this topic and how you would address some of the questions that were raised. I love a healthy discussion and sometimes the opportunities are few and far between.

    In reading this post, I feel at times like you are making less of a “defense for the existence of the local church” and more of an “argument against the existence of non-profit organizations.”

    The local church is irreplaceable in the life of Christians desiring to grow in Christ and carry on His Great Commission. And the collective Church, believers across the world who have been baptized into the body of Christ, is unmatchable in its ability to transform our world for good. However, I do not feel that the value of the church is threatened by the existence of non-profit, para-church organizations. In fact, the church’s work can often be aided by it.

    Furthermore, I disagree with your belief that Christians “cannot legitimately extend help to the needy without also extending the offer of the Gospel.” This may seem logical to someone who is serving in full time ministry, but for many faithful Christians in service oriented occupations around the world, it is untenable. Christian doctors serving in the Emergency Room “extend help to the needy” at all hours of the day, but would be hard pressed to find the time to witness to all of the patients in their care. Does this make the goodness of their work illegitimate? And what about Christian doctors serving in third world countries with “Doctors Without Borders?” Because their are now serving in a “mission field,” can they still practice medicine with a good conscience even if they do not have the opportunity to proselytize their patients?

    I just feel like this perspective ignores the fact that sometimes our good works alone, with no Gospel strings attached, can cause men to glorify our Father which is in heaven.

    • Vengador July 20, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

      Hey Jack,

      Good to hear from you again. Glad you stuck around during that long interval to give us your perspective! I hope people read your comment, too, because it does point to some holes in what I said that – hopefully – I can clarify a bit. But you make a couple great points.

      First, I have no problem with an organization helping churches. But surely all of us are aware how rarely a parachurch organization truly operates as a servant of local churches! One of the very few example I’ve seen is the mission board that I serve with. They would simply not exist if churches did not approve of them – and they do nothing but act in the local church’s name! So I don’t think I disagree with you so much as you think. I would just say that you’re talking about an extremely rare beast. Unicorns might help the church, too.

      I’m not sure that second part is as untenable as you think it to be. You made me give it some thought, though, that’s for sure. You make a great point – can Christians perform works of mercy without the ministry of the Word accompanying? But… a Christian doctor ‘serving the needy’ in the Emergency Room is far removed from the ministries of mercy that Christians are compelled to perform (and I have several family members in the medical profession)! As long as it’s your profession, and you’re being compensated in the way that Western doctors are – it’s hard to make a case that you’re ‘serving’ in any Christian sense.

      Beyond that, I think you did point out that I didn’t speak accurately enough. I tried to show what I meant by the word ‘offer’, but the meaning is still unclear, I see. Here’s what I mean… I’ll see your doctor illustration and raise you every other profession that Christians may have! All Christians, in all of their professions, should be ‘offering’ the Gospel. Meaning, they should be open about being a Christian, as well as constantly seeking opportunities to share the Gospel with those they come in contact with. Obviously, they won’t get to witness to everyone – but they should be wishing they could! Of course, the good a Christian does in any profession is good – but it’s not the Great Commission, and my point is that Christians can never just ‘turn off’ their disciple-making efforts, no matter what job they clock into.

      Even Tim Keller, who is one of the most prominent voices among conservative evangelicals advocating social justice, says (in his old, less-read book on the subject): ‘But to say in turn that the ministry of mercy can stand on its own and is an end in itself may pave the way for social concern that is divorced from the preaching of the gospel. This must never happen. Such deed ministry, even with a Christian motivation, cannot spread the kingdom of God. In no way can we say evangelism and social concern are “independent.” They are interdependent equals.’ Later on he says, ‘To say that social concern could be done independently of evangelism is to cut mercy loose from kingdom endeavor. It must then wither.’ Concerning time, he says, ‘Although… mercy and evangelism do not need to be offered at the exact same time, yet they must be coupled, because they are interrelated.’ And vividly, he adds, ‘Mercy and evangelism are like smoke and fire – where one is, the other must be near.’

      I would say, then, that no Christian can do anything in good conscience if they are not seeking an opportunity to share the Gospel with unbelievers.

      For the record, I would never make the Gospel a string attached to good works. Christian doctors and Christian others should perform good works whether or not people accept the Gospel. And the recipients will glorify God because of those good works. But there can never be much of a question about whether or not we’re going to try to share the Gospel. The point of the post is that the church is going to be required for fully-orbed kingdom work – preaching the Gospel and doing good.

      Thanks for giving a chance to clarify!

      • Jack July 22, 2012 at 2:59 am #

        Well put reply. I certainly agree with your point that evangelism and social concern are interdependent equals. Perhaps our Lord put it best when it said that we are to be both salt and light!

        And as you have made clear, that light should never been hidden.

  6. Fr.G July 19, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    Hi, thanks for writing this-it really is thought provoking and convicting. I wholeheartedly agree that the church is Christ’s most potent weapon in changing the world. Fighting the sex trade, combating crime, feeding the poor, raising awareness for persecuted Christians do not result in lasting change without Christ actually changing these perpetrators and victims from the inside. And the world’s greatest need is Christ. And who better than the Church?

    I know you wouldn’t disagree that there is still a need for organizations to meet the physical sufferings of the world. As Christians, how can we just stand by and watch? And how will the world know of our love but through our deeds?

    But how can the church be the primary agent? In practical terms and in looking at the reality of churches today, most churches take the stance of bystanders. For example, when there is a natural disaster or some social injustice: don’t we usually have some presentation and a testimony, say a prayer and collect money to give to some organization? How can the church be the primary agent in reaching out to sex slave traders, criminals, etc? I guess the main issue is really that churches are not actively reaching out to their neighborhoods and making disciples. We shamedly have become a church that functions for feeding itself rather than going out into the world. Church has become only for church-people. Most people wouldn’t have an issue with your blog post if churches were actually living out the great commission.

  7. Fr.G July 19, 2012 at 11:06 am #

    Sorry for the above long post. What I really wanted to emphasize was on your question:

    “Whereas the question I was trying to highlight was, ‘Why are young believers opting out of the church altogether in their quest to change the world?’ It’s not that they’re leading churches to alleviate physical suffering. It’s that they’re abandoning churches to go alleviate physical and spiritual suffering.”

    It’s because churches do not alleviate physical and spiritual suffering. A young girl has a God-given burden for orphans, a young man has a God-given burden for social injustice – they look around as to where they can contribute and the church is nowhere near the orphans or the socially-injusticed. The church is sitting on their pews feeding themselves, making themselves feel better about themselves.

    Let’s be honest: ask a criminal, a prostitute, a sex slave trader, an abortionist who has reached out to them and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be some baptist church member. Or ask them, if they needed help, who would they turn to? I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be a church.

    It’s our own fault. We don’t teach young people that they can change the world through the church. If young people looked at the churches of today, it’s pretty clear they should go somewhere else to make any difference.

    • Vengador July 23, 2012 at 9:13 pm #

      Hey Fr.G
      You make a great point – what is a Christian to do when he or she discovers that the church they serve in has no apparent desire to meet needs of any kind in the world? As you point out, this is generally the justification for believers starting new organizations that will do something where the church is unable or unwilling to. But while I truly appreciate the burden that would lead to such a decision, I would plead with any Christian I knew to consider another way. Why?

      The same factors that keep many churches from meeting these needs effectively will also prevent an organization you start from meeting these needs effectively! The church is just a body of believers. So if you start an organization, who are you going to fill it with? Believers? Then what is to stop your organization from falling into the same callousness and/or incompetency that plagues your church? An organization filled with believers is no MORE than a church – it’s just a lot LESS!

      But I don’t mean that you should do nothing, either. First, you could work for the reformation of your church in these areas. Do something personally in your community. See if your Sunday school class or small group could do a little project of some kind. Second, you could leave your church and find one that was more conscious of the physically and spiritually needy.

      But let’s say you’re burdened about some need overseas. I’m glad for an opportunity to clarify here. I think people hear me saying, ‘Your church in a small suburb in Ohio is the answer for orphans with AIDS in Zimbabwe.’ And that’s really not what I mean. What I mean is that you, as a person with a desire to minister those orphans need to find a church there in Zimbabwe to work with. In fact, if your church in Ohio wanted to send a team to Zimbabwe to work with said orphans for a week, I would tell them the same thing. Find a local church in Zimbabwe who will work with these orphans long-term, or you are seriously limiting your effectiveness. If there is no church there, and I was unqualified to start a church there, I would find another (equally needy) place and work with a church there. I would not try to work ahead of the church, as frustrating as that may be to hear.

      Thanks for your comment and letting everyone hear the perspective of someone truly burdened in this way!

  8. Todd July 27, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Was incredibly blessed by the writing you did in these two posts. You clearly touched a point of tension between the current generation and the church; a place where this generation uncomfortably struggles. Thanks for diving into the subject. I have made both posts available to the college aged of our ministry. Blessings.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Centrality of the Local Church in Missions | Pioneer Senders - January 8, 2013

    […] Ecclesioporosis | Part 2 […]

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

    […] world. In the first post, we looked at some of the factors contributing to this condition. In the second, we examined some reasons that the church is simply indispensable to effecting ‘positive […]

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