This is Part 3 of the series "A MISSIONARY ECCLESIOLOGY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY". Originally presented in 2005, the relevance is current.
by R. Bruce Carlton
Major Emphasis #2 - More Mission Churches, Less Mission Societies
As it moves into the twenty-first century, the church must discover that mission is for the entire church and not solely the responsibility of mission societies, religious professionals or some specialized task force.
Arévalo asserts, “Every local church is and cannot but be missionary…is sent by Christ and the Father to bring the Gospel to its surrounding milieu and to bear it also to all the world.”
Newbigin adds, “A church is no true church if it is not missionary, and missions are not true missions if they are not part of the life of the church.” He adds that churches around the world have sought to fuse church and mission, but this has not been as successful at the local church level as it perhaps has been at national or international levels. Newbigin further cautions the church not to fall prey to the false belief that mere financial support of a mission society or missionaries is mission, but the church must see itself as responsible for bearing witness to the world around it.
As the church rediscovers that it was established by God to be a community, this rediscovery should lead the church to realize its inherent missionary nature. Being the community of God’s people is more than just existing as a community that lives according to the truth of Jesus Christ; community also means going into the world. Furthermore, for the church to be community, it means that, whether gathered or scattered, it remains community with a mandate to fulfill God’s mission.
Hunsberger gives a vivid description of the impact of this realization:
To be community means to remain community while scattered. The question, Where is your church? requires a better answer than the geographic location of the facility. Where are the people who are that community? Where are they working, living, playing? Essential to the notion of community is a new recognition that the missional placement of a congregation lies precisely within the workplaces and multiple social worlds the people inhabit day to day. And with that comes a new appreciation that when separated to all those daily worlds, the community is still a community, bound the same way to each other and responsible together to be a community that gives expression to the gospel. The church that is truly community will be one in which there is a seamless harmony between its gathered moments and its scattered ones.
The church today exists in almost every nation, and, as Newbigin points out, the church is growing most “in the cultures that have not been shaped by ‘modern’ Western culture.” These Two-Thirds World churches often find themselves in environments that are hostile to Christianity, much like the early church; therefore, these churches realize their very survival demands a missionary response The Western church, as it faces a postmodern world, also finds itself within a hostile environment. Just as Two-Third World churches are discovering that their mission fields exist within the immediate culture surrounding them. The Western church must come to the same discovery. This is the cutting edge of mission for the Western church and the church worldwide in this century.
Throughout the modern mission movement, mission has been primarily something carried out by the wealthier and more powerful nations of the West. It expressed itself primarily in the development of mission societies. These societies, whether denominational or independent, have mobilized personnel and finances from the larger Christian community. However, Newbigin points out, “Today the great numerical increases are taking place mainly through the quiet witness of members of congregations to their neighbors.” Throughout my twenty-plus years of working in Asia, I have found this to be an accurate description of the growth of the church in the Asian context.
An effective missionary ecclesiology for the twenty-first century will demand that mission societies understand their fading impact, in general, and the professional missionary, in particular. Multiplication of more professional missionaries is not required for the church to fulfill its missionary mandate effectively. As Allen so appropriately stated, “A thousand thousand would not suffice; a dozen might be too many.”
Mission societies and missionaries have often acted as if they could effectively and completely spread the Good News of Jesus Christ throughout a nation, but it is the ability of the local church in each setting to reproduce itself and extend its witness that will accomplish this.
In recent years, the phenomenon of church-planting movements has begun to impact the church around the world. At the very heart of church-planting movements is the concept of churches fulfilling their missionary mandate through reproducing themselves throughout a people group or geographical area. This can be seen in the definition of church-planting movements, “A rapid and exponential increase of indigenous churches planting churches within a given people group or population segment.”
Some would argue that the Two-Thirds World churches are unable to provide the resources necessary to carry out an effective cross-cultural mission effort to the ends of the earth. However, the West is so conditioned to the paradigm of the professional missionary that we find it difficult to accept a different missionary paradigm. Such an attitude also underestimates the resourcefulness of the Two-Thirds
For example, in recent years the massive house church networks throughout China have launched an effort called ‘Back to Jerusalem.’ This vision is for Chinese churches to take the gospel along the Silk Road all the way back to Jerusalem. This will involve radical obedience and costly discipleship on the part of those sent out from the Chinese church, yet I doubt any missionary or Christian who has had contact with the Chinese house churches would question the resourcefulness or commitment of these Christians.
I am not advocating a moratorium on missionaries; however, missionaries and mission societies must undertake a serious critique of the professional missionary paradigm and its relevance for the church in the twenty-first century. Could it be that the role of missionaries should be as Allen envisioned it:
Our missionaries must aim at laying such a foundation that India may be evangelized by Indians, China by Chinese, Africa by Africans, each country by its own Christians. The certainly must mean that our missions ought to prepare the way for the evangelization of the country by the free spontaneous activity of our converts, and that their success must be measured not so much by the number of foreign missionaries employed, or by the number of converts, as by the growth of a native church in the power to expand.
Mission societies and missionaries in the twenty-first century need to be cautious not to stifle the spontaneous expansion of the church. Missionaries must come alongside the local churches and Christians where they reside and genuinely enter into equal partnership. The Two-Thirds World no longer needs or desires to have the Western church dominating it. At the same time, neither can the Western church completely capitulate its responsibility of mission to the ends of the earth. Rather, it must be equal partnership as churches worldwide walk hand in hand, together living lives of integrity and radical commitment that give the church credibility in an ever-hostile and ever-changing world.