Doing Missions Like the Church Exists: Towards an Ecclesial Missiology

Missions and the Church

“Why don’t we just start a new denomination?”

I asked this question ambitiously and naievely in my first year as a missionary. I was in a meeting with several leaders (missionaries and local leaders), and the challenges of working with a local denomination were being discussed. The challenges sounded like they would slow down the important mission we had come to pursue. Some of them seemed insurmountable for growing the church. We believed in church planting, why not denomination planting? Didn’t Peter Wagner and the Church Growth Movement teach us, “It is easier to have babies than raise the dead!”? Why not cut our losses and start over? Ergo, my silly idea.

However, I now believe this idea demonstrated both a lack of understanding of the context (somewhat excusable for a new missionary?) and a lack of love for Christ’s church (not excusable at all). My passion revealed a commitment to missional ecclesiology (the church going on mission), but my haste revealed a weak ecclesiology in my missiology (the importance of the existing church in mission). Thankfully, the other leaders didn’t agree with my proposal. But the longer I serve, the more I see young missionaries and even whole agencies and missions groups pursuing similar ambitions to the one I proposed. It’s all well-meaning, but such missiology reveals a weak ecclesiology.

What I mean by missiology having a weak ecclesiology is that in many places missions is done as though the church does not exist. Missions mobilization tends to focus on the weaknesses and absence of the church in many places around the world. In certain places that are still unengaged (meaning zero local Christians and zero local church presence), this is appropriate and helpful. If there is no church in such and such a place for such for such a people group, then we need the Lord to send forth foreign laborers to go and establish a church. This is analogous to Paul’s work of planting and laying a foundation for churches across the Roman Empire (1 Corinthians 3:6,10). It is a true pioneering work.

But most missionaries do not go to unengaged places. Most missionaries go to places with some church presence that they feel a particular draw towards. Some missionaries go to places that are unreached (normally meaning that the population of a particular ethno-linguistic demographic is less than 2% evangelical Christian). But “unreached” is a statistical category created by missiologists to demonstrate whether or not a church in a given area has reached a point of critical mass to be self-sufficient. The category of unreached people groups is helpful for prioritization in mobilization, but it is not as helpful for local ministry. The framing of a people as unreached unintentionally masks the presence of a local church body that may have been serving faithfully amidst difficulty and weaknesses for years.

The Reformation’s “marks of the church” are not simply for determining if a church is true or false. More fundamentally, they are the marks that a church exists at all. In an unengaged place there is no proclamation of God’s word, there is no administration of his sacraments, and there is no church. That people remains without hope and without God in the world. They need someone to come and pioneer a churchly work for their salvation and blessing. But when there is proclamation of God’s word and when there is administration of his sacraments, these gloriously mark the presence of a church in a region. They serve as a beacon of hope amongst an otherwise lost people. They demonstrate that the gospel of Jesus Christ is present because his church is present to proclaim it. The Kingdom of God is at hand.

A church is a church regardless of its size or its influence. It may indeed desire and require help from around the world to support its health and multiplication, but “unreached” does not mean the same thing as “unengaged”. Doing missions in a place with a local church of any size is to do the work of Apollos — watering and building upon a foundation already laid (1 Corinthians 3:6, 10). Paul laid gospel foundations in regions across the Roman Empire expecting and needing others to build on them (Romans 15:20–21). In a similar manner, former missionaries laid gospel foundations expecting and needing local Christians and missionaries to build on them. But it seems like missionaries are always laying new foundations wherever we go.

Doing Missions Like the Church Exists

An alternative approach is to do missions like the church exists. Instead of assuming there are no Christians or no church in a region, we might look carefully to see what God is already doing. Instead of writing off the existing church as too weak and launching competing institutions (including church plants or denominations) in an area, we might seek to understand the institutions that already exist. One seasoned missionary helpfully confronted me after my suggestion, “This local denomination is the way it is for a reason. You can start a new denomination, but unless you understand why it is the way it is, that new denomination is bound to end up like the last.” Instead of pouring efforts entirely into the creation of more institutional church, missionaries might more helpfully help grow the organic church, to use Abraham Kuyper’s helpful distinction (cf. Rooted and Grounded).

Doing missions like the church exists means partnering with existing local church bodies and negotiating ways to work together as peers. Not submitting weakly and without voice, but hashing out the details of how to address the biggest challenges facing the church in a region. Neither paternally domineering over churchly bodies nor running off as cavaliers to start yet another institution. Might we instead, through fellowship and prayer, wrestle with how we can work together well. “In terms of polity, missionary work is then the calling of two cooperating churches…The two churches are more than partners, they are one and the same church” (JH Bavinck, Science of Missions, 207). Might we gather as the church did in Acts 15 to face our challenges headlong together with presbyters from across a country and the globe with a common love for a people and a passion to see God work in a place.

Doing missions like the church exists looks like applying creativity and resources available not simply to launch competing Christian institutions, but seeking to prayerfully instigate a gospel movement. Such work, for the missionary, is self-effacing, as it seeks to bolster and grow a church in a non-paternalistic manner. For the local church in a region, it is empowering. It is not easy, but a strong ecclesiology demands we take the local church seriously even in “unreached” places. Where a foundation of a local church is laid in any context, we must take care not only HOW we build upon it, but THAT we build upon it at all.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1–6)