Part III. Church or Mission? A False Choice

(For ease of reading this serialisation is not footnoted: the books from which quotes are taken can be found by following the links)

Church planting is the place where ecclesiology and missiology meet. Contemporary English missiologists Tim Chester and Steve Timmis argue against any separation of the two in our evangelistic thinking. They claim there can be no single focus, whether on the church – seeing mission as the best way to grow communities; or on mission – seeing the church as the best way to achieve our missiological goals. Rather, “church planting is the outworking of mission and community. It is the point where mission and community intersect.”

Any drive to plant more churches must be born out of the deep conviction that the church is not just a useful – much less a comfortable – sociological phenomenon, but that it is central to God’s purposes for the world. Chester writes: “We are not saved individually and then choose to join the church as if it were some club or support group. Christ died for his people and we are saved when, by faith, we become part of the people for whom Christ died.” John Stott expounds this in terms of God’s purpose for humanity:

“The church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God. It is not a divine afterthought. It is not an accident of history. On the contrary, the church is God’s new community. For his purpose, conceived in a past eternity, being worked out in history, and to be perfected in a future eternity, is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather to build his church, that is, to call out of the world a people for his own glory.”

Church planting, therefore, is nothing less than facilitating the creation of places where this divine purpose can be expressed in tangible form and in local contexts.

Systematic theologian, Wayne Grudem, drawing on Ephesians 1:22-23, affirms this big picture, the grand purpose and design of God: “so great is God’s plan for the church that he has exalted Christ to a position of highest authority for the sake of the church.” But it is a plan that has local, as well as universal, implications:

“In the New Testament the word church may be applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers in the universal church…We may conclude that the group of God’s people considered at any level from local to universal may rightly be called a church.”

Lesslie Newbigin, one of the 20th century’s foremost ecumenical mission thinkers, wryly reminds us that “Jesus…. did not write a book but formed a community.” He then lays down this powerful challenge: “I believe the only hermeneutic of the gospel is a congregation of men and women who believe it and live by it.”

The church, therefore, dare not be seen as a theological abstraction. We cannot, if we are to be true to both the biblical witness and to our own calling as believers, affirm the truth of the universal church while denying that we have any responsibility for, or need have any commitment to, its local manifestation. As theologian Alister McGrath notes: “Local churches and particular denominations are to be seen as the manifestations, representations, or embodiments of the one universal church.” The local church is the primary agent for mission. Richard Yates Hibbert, in a helpful 2009 article, expresses this explicitly:

“The church is at the heart of God’s purposes, and is the primary agent and sign of the kingdom of God. Transformation of societies in God’s desired direction occurs through the agency of God’s people, and it is local churches which are designed to be the central expression of the values and life of the kingdom.”

Chester goes as far as to say: “There can be no sustainable Christian mission without sustainable local Christian communities.” What, then, are the challenges facing the church as it seeks this sustainability?

The creation of such communities is demanding because it is both counter-intuitive to fallen selfish humanity and because it has always been counter-cultural, even within the Christian culture. Hibbert lists some examples of where evangelical methodology has actually militated against community:

“The strong individualism of western culture, of Pietism in the early missionary movement, of revivalism in the second half of the nineteenth century, and of crusade evangelism in the twentieth century has deeply influenced the worldview of the church and the theology of much of the northern hemisphere.”

Scottish Presbyterian theologian Donald Macleod applies this directly to the reformed community: “There is sustained emphasis in both the Old and New Testaments on this corporate dimension of Christianity. We in the Reformed churches need to listen to this particularly carefully because the Reformation brought in a marked individualism.”  Hibbert agrees, and says that this explains the lack of theological thinking behind most Protestant missions. Although church planting has always been part of missions, he writes: “in practice, however, the salvation of individuals has often taken priority, and Protestants have done little to develop a theology of church planting.”

So the challenges facing those seeking to plant gospel-oriented, grace-centered communities in the twenty-first century West come not just from the potential hostility of a secularized culture, but also from centuries of individualistic Christian practice which, at least undermines, and at most actively opposes, the formation of true Christian community. Chester warns: “Church planting cannot involve an uncritical replication of existing models. Church planting should be at the forefront of new ecclesiological thinking.” This has indeed proved to be the case as successive reports of the two main British national churches (the Church of England and Church of Scotland) examined “fresh expressions of church” or “new ways of doing church.” These are looked at in greater detail in a later section.

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