The Demise of the Church?
Paradoxically one can do missions today without involvement with local churches. Many missionaries are sent out by para-church organizations to translate the Bible into vernaculars, dispense aid to needy people, enhance the development of nations, and train national church leaders in school settings without significantly relating to national churches or their leaders on the field. Christian missions is done without personal connection with local churches in either the sending or receptor nations.
A post-modern, anti-institutional bias has amplified the negation of the church. Christianity, according to Jacques Derrida, belongs “outside” the church. The “religiosity” of Christianity, existing within the fabric of culture, may either be “repressed [or] incorporated by institutionalized Christianity” (TLS; Sept. 5, 1997; 16). Post-modernists are generally “high on God” but “low on the church”. They are enchanted by the person of Jesus but disenchanted with the church (Sweet 1999, 47-49). The hypocrisy, harshness, division, and politicalization of the church has led many, who are seeking spirituality, to negate the church. Thus Mike Regele in Death of the Church argues that “the traditional place of the institutional church in American society is dying and with it the institutional church itself.” (1995, 20).
Reflection upon this rapid spread of para-church organizations with little or no association with the local church and the negation of the church by contemporary society has motivated me to rethink the essential nature of the church in this Monthly Missiological Reflection.
Needed: A Renewed Biblical Ecclesiology
Today there is so much justified cynicism toward the church by our children, disengaged members, and the general populace that the best beginning point of discussion is frequently confession. Christians must confess that we have forgotten God, and without that divine impulse, have frequently made the church little more that a social fraternity. Half the members of evangelical churches are in actuality Christian agnostics, who lack the conviction and compulsion to hold distinctive religious standards. Only ten to fifteen percent of our churches rated “highly effective” in Christian ministry (Barna 1998, 6; Sweet 1999, 50). We must confess that we have forgotten how to pray. Our Wednesday evenings, traditionally a time for prayer, have become another period of teaching. We have forsaken intimate, Christian community for individual enjoyment before televisions and computers. We have become so absorbed by the voices of this world that we have forgotten to place God’s Word in our hearts. We must again become God-seeking, community-focused, Word-listening disciples–God’s distinctive people in the world (1 Pet. 2:9)!!
God’s distinctive people quickly acknowledge that, although composed of people, they are not a human institution. Rather, they are the result of a mission, or a sending which began with God. The mission of God, initiated through Jesus Christ and continued through his disciples, led to the formation of the church. Christ prayed about this sending in John 17:18: “As you sent me into the world, I have also sent them into the world.” He reiterated this statement after his resurrection: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). Thus every local church has a history of God’s mighty acts operating through ministers of reconciliation through whom God makes his appeal (2 Cor. 5:18-20). The church, then, should conceive of itself as “the outcome of the activity of God who sends and saves” (Vicedom 1965, 80). Had God not sent his Son, there would be no church. Since God’s mission through Christ conceived the church, it must be thought of as his institution, under his jurisdiction, set aside to fulfill his purposes in the world. In no way should his body be considered a social fraternity without a relationship to him who initiated it.
To be faithful to God in post-modern culture the church must redefine herself as a missionary fellowship. Not only is she the result of mission, she is also God’s witness to the world. Those redeemed by God’s mission and incorporated as his distinctive people become witnesses to his nature and mighty acts. How can those who have been delivered from Satan’s bondage and reconciled to God in Jesus Christ remain silent !! They “believe and therefore speak” (2 Cor. 4:13).
In a very real sense mission is the very lifeblood of the church. As the body cannot survive without blood, so the church cannot survive without mission. Without blood the body dies; without mission the church dies. As the physical body becomes weak without sufficient oxygen-carrying red blood cells, so the church becomes anemic, unable express her faith. The church most frequently establishes her rationale for being–her purpose for existing–while articulating her faith. An unexpressed faith withers (Van Rheenen 1996, 30-31). However, evangelism forces us to prioritize and organize our beliefs. The gospel takes form in our lives when we ask, “What does this person need to know in order to come to Christ?” My co-worker Ed Mathews aptly says, “The question is not merely what will happen to the lost if we do not preach the gospel but also what will happen to us if we do not preach the gospel.” In our generation of cultural accommodation few Christians have actually experienced a church propelled and shaped by God’s mission. They, consequently, cannot fathom the church as a redemptive fellowship. The lifeblood of the church has drained away without the church realizing what is happening.
Developing a strong movement of God in a people group or multi-cultural urban setting requires the accomplishment of three essential missions tasks. First, initial evangelism must lead to the planting of new churches. Second, new Christians must be nurtured to maturity within these churches. Third, leaders must be trained to evangelize and plant other churches, shepherd the community of believers, and train still other leaders (Van Rheenen 1996, 147). But what occurs when missions is done without a biblically-rooted ecclesiology? Frequently these fundamental tasks of missions are marginalized and a strong movement of God fails to come into existence. Specialty ministries such as feeding the hungry, translating the scriptures, and healing the sick, are done without the orientation, training, and passion to plant and nurture reproductive churches. While other missions tasks may amplify these three central tasks, strong movements of God cannot come into being without their accomplishment.
The church achieves her true essence when she embodies the mission of God. When this occurs, critics are unable to disparage her as hypocritical, harsh, divisive, and political. There are, according to Paul Tournier, two things that people cannot do alone–be married and be a Christian. Being a Christian is not a solitary experience. It is a pilgrimage in the company of the committed (Tournier in Mitchell, 1996). It is time for us to reaffirm and practice a biblical theology of the church.
The church, like the moon, should be a reflection of divine light. As the moon reflects the light of the sun, so should the church reflect the light of God. Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). But too many churches live as if an eclipse is occurring, existing in darkness when they have been redeemed to be beacons of light.
Barna, George. 1998. Baptist Standard (15 April):6.
Reese, Mitchell. 1993. “Groups: The Church in Pilgrimage” in Focus on Buenos Aires. Vol. 1, No. 3 (April 1996):1.
Regele, Mike. 1995. Death of the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Sweet, Leonard. 1999. Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
TLS Times Literary Supplement (Sept. 5, 1997):16.
Van Rheenen, Gailyn. 1996. Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Vicedom, George F. 1965. The Mission of God. Trans. Gilbert A. Thiele and Dennis Hilgendorf. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.