The Church, On Mission

This the the third in what I didn’t realize was going to become a series on the relationship between missiology and ecclesiology. I believe this is an extremely helpful conversation. One that needs to happen more and more.

Missiologically-driven folks need to hear more about the centrality of the church in the Great Commission. Many of my missionary friends seem to be a bit, er, underdeveloped in their ecclesiology. They operate as though the local expression of the church is but one of several valid mechanisms for mission. As if things like pastoral care, personal accountability, and spiritual gift-based ministry were optional. But as I’ve written before, I believe that the Commission was given to the church, and that it is God’s structure for obeying that Commission. I believe that churches, not individuals, should be planting churches. I believe that church doesn’t just happen by accident, but that people must be discipled into becoming a healthy body of Christ.

The church has a mission.

The church-centrics, on the other hand, tend to lose sight of the fact that the church exists to do mission. Not in the pragmatic, “whatever works” sense, but in the “what’s the point of our presence on earth if we’re not deliberate about incarnating the gospel in our context?” sort of way. If the church, (lead my Christ Himself) were to organize itself around the mission, it might look a bit different than it does. You know, things like where we meet. How we spend money. The language we use. Our attitudes toward those who don’t believe. Our taste in music.

The mission has a church.

Just to be clear (I know, why start now?) I’m not calling for balance here. I’m calling for mutual influence. Missions-types need to hear from pastoral church guys. Without condescension, without ignorant over-simplification. The church-centered side desperately needs to hear from the missionaries among us. No guilt-trips, no judgmental disdain. When we get together and wrestle through conversations like these, we really are getting somewhere.

The Church Has A Mission

The Upstream Collective recently went to London and Paris on a Jet Set vision trip. We took 26 pastors and church leaders (and  a couple wives) to Europe to see first-hand what missions looks like in that post-Christian context. These trips have always been successful.  90% of pastors who participate find ways to become directly involved in missions within 6 months of the trip.

My favorite part of our Jet Set vision trips is the casual conversation that happens over coffee and on the subway. When you get a group of church planters and leaders together, we sort of geek out on theology, social trends, and technology. This trip was a great mix of highly motivated church planters. They saw the challenge of ministry in these global cities and had some great ideas for strategic engagement there. But every conversation seemed to come back around to one sticking point: The Stateside pastors/planters felt that the workers in the field had a low ecclesiologicaly relative to their missiology.

I think the pastors had a good point. Missionaries, acting as “free agents” without direct oversight from any local body of believers, were almost entirely focused on building relationships, studying culture, and looking for ways to move into spiritual conversations. I’ve written extensively here about the importance of these things. But I’ve also written here about the same concern the American pastors had– that the missionary teams were working hard to start churches without actually being a church.

The fellowship of believers is a powerful thing. The presence of the church can serve as an example of Christ-centered community that is attractive, incarnational, and redemptive. But these orphaned church planting team has to do quite a bit to make up for the fact that they are not churches. Outside the care, gifting, leadership, and authority of a local church, they’re in a spiritually dangerous place.

Some missionary teams join local churches (when there are any), hoping to be “adopted” by them as they work to plant new churches. But these local churches had no part in the missionaries’ confirmation of calling, formation, preparation, or sending. They don’t often share a common vision for church planting among their own people. Consequently, missionaries can be frustrated, sidetracked, or rejected by existing ministries among their people group.

When missiology is at the forefront– when it “precedes” ecclesiology, we send missionaries separate from the local church to do mission on behalf of the church. The result can be an isolated missionary that is estranged from God’s organizational structure, the church.

More soon…

The Mission Has A Church

There has been an ongoing discussion among Christian leaders about the relationship of the church and the mission of God. On one side, you’ve got those who say that ecclesiology (theology of church) should come before our missiology (theology of mission). In other words, the church is the most important thing in terms of how believers organize themselves, and that mission is a function of the church. If you get church right, these leaders say, then mission, along with the other functions of the church, will happen. If the church isn’t doing mission, it’s because the church isn’t healthy, obedient, and gospel-centered.

On the other side of the discussion are those would would flip that perspective around, making ecclesiology serve our missiology. My friend Alan Hirsch is an articulate advocate for this take on missional thinking, and he says, “Rather than say that the church has a mission, we should say that the mission has a church.” Believers have a mission, and what we know as “church” is meant to organize us to do that mission. From this perspective, our health, obedience, and gospel-centeredness are measured not by our leadership structure, but by our ownership of and involvement in God’s mission.

I believe that the two sides of this conversation represent the difference between pastors and missionaries. On the one hand, we’ve got pastors who major on church and minor  on missions. On the other hand, we have missionaries who major in mission and minor on church.

I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic soon. In the meantime, be sure to check out this series by David Fitch and this post and comments from Jonathan Dodson,  and this Next Wave article on the topic.