My take on what has happened over the course of the last forty years is as follows. In evangelicalism in particular, we have raised a whole generation of Christians who were discipled not so much by traditional local churches as by parachurch ministries and churches that have become dominated by the parachurch ethos. That ethos is not “Church” but “Mission.” And so what we see today is the fruit of that.
We have many communities of faith that would be better described as “missions” rather than “churches.”
Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, InterVarsity, Youth for Christ, and a thousand other parachurch ministries have been the true engines of growth in evangelicalism over the course of my Christian life. Their emphasis on “evangelism and discipleship” influenced those who developed the church growth movement, the Willow Creek movement, the church-planting “community church” type movements, and the more contemporary examples we see today. Traditional Protestantism defined the church as a community where the Word of God was truly preached and the sacraments truly administered. Today, “church” is defined by many as a community that practices evangelism and discipleship.
I don’t totally disagree, and the emphasis on mission in today’s congregations is likely a reaction to a lack of that emphasis in more traditional congregations.
However, this leads to some problems. What, for example, would Paul say about a “church” that consists wholly of those age 25 and under? Or any “church” that exists primarily to reach a particular demographic? Or a “church” that, for the purpose of outreach, shapes its preaching and “worship” (i.e. music) after a particular culture rather than shaping it around the Gospel? (That is not the same as saying our worship and religious styles will reflect our cultural context.)
I think, frankly, that the Apostle would have problems with this approach. Certainly, in a broad sense, Paul saw himself as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” while others were “apostles to the Jews.” And he did say, in 1Corinthians 9, that he was willing to adapt his approach to reach as many as possible. That was his mission in the world.
However, that was not what he said “church” is about. When Paul gathered people from the various backgrounds he had reached into the church, he brought them together, and insisted that the ethos of the church was learning to accommodate to one another, accept one another, and become a cross-cultural community in Christ. Almost every epistle he wrote is designed in part to reinforce this ecclesiological perspective.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)
[you] have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him — a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:10-11)
Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Rom 14:5-7)
But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Eph 3:13-22)
This is an entirely different vision of the church than we see in many congregations, whether traditional or “cutting-edge.” There is a breadth to the church as well as a height, a horizontal element as well as the vertical dimension. It is not just about bringing people into relationship with God through Jesus and providing a place where they may feel “comfortable” because we have accommodated to their cultural expectations. It is about bringing people into a community that requires that we learn how to relate to all different kinds of people and teaches us to love one another.
It is entirely reasonable to assume that the reason people think we need so many “innovative” mission-oriented “churches” today is because the traditional churches failed to be “the church” in this regard. We isolated ourselves from the world rather than go out in mission with Paul’s gracious, accommodating spirit.
- We did not welcome the outsider.
- We did not show concern for the ones who are unlike us.
- We did not love our neighbors when we disapproved of their clothing, the music they liked, or the culture, ethnicity, or socio-economic group they represented.
- We ignored and even demonized our straying youth.
- We lost our sense of mission, at least when it came to our near neighbors.
- We did not go out into the world, as Paul did, willing to adapt our lifestyles and approaches to reach people from various cultures, befriending sinners and sharing God’s love with them in ways they could grasp.
- We separated from them instead. We tried to create islands of godliness in a sea of sinful culture. And then we tried to attract outsiders to come in to behold something “different.”
Yes, in many ways the traditional churches failed to be the church, participating in God’s mission in the world. But the ultimate answer is not to create “missions” to particular groups of those who have been left out and then call these missions “churches.” We must distinguish between “church” and “mission.” What happens when we “scatter” into the world differs from what we do when we “gather” together as God’s family.
The “mission” that calls itself a “church” may be a necessary transitional step because of where we’ve been, but ultimately God’s people need to grow up and become adults and listen to what the New Testament says.
- We are called to create genuine churches of “Jew and Gentile, slave and free, etc.” united in Christ alone.
- A church is not only a place where the Word is truly proclaimed and the sacraments faithfully served. It is also a place, according to the consistent and pervasive teaching of the NT, that intentionally strives for inclusion and diversity as a testimony to God’s love for the whole world.
- A true church is a place where everyone is welcome, and where one of the chief matters of spiritual formation is learning to love those who are different from me.
God is creating a community — a cross-cultural community — that is, a people which consists of folks who may be very different from one another, but who share a “common unity” in Jesus Christ. That is the NT vision of church. Our unity does not consist in the fact that we all have tattoos or like grunge music or meet in a pub. Nor does it consist in the fact that we are mostly conservative middle-class suburbanites who share a common family-oriented lifestyle. Nor does it consist in our whiteness or blackness or the specific ethnic culture in which we live. Nor is it about organs, hymns, robes, and pews, or praise bands, screens, and “casual” worship.
Our only true oneness is in Christ. We accommodate to “where people are” to reach them in the world for Christ, making them disciples. The place we accommodate is in our daily life, relationships, and interactions. But then, when we “baptize people and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded us,” we call them into the practice of cross-cultural love within the new family God is creating. What the world needs to see is faith communities made up of people vastly different from one another who have laid hold of that.