Note: This article is the third installment in a series called “Missional Strategy: Why we do what we do the way we do it.” Previous articles are always available at http://www.webbweekly.com.
Why We Do – The Church is the channel through which God’s saving (prevenient), transforming (sanctifying), and empowering (missional) grace flows into the world. The free-flowing distribution of God’s grace is the Church’s first missional priority.
What We Do – The Church gathers people together, under the name of Jesus Christ, to experience God’s presence and grace within the context of loving and accountable relationships. The Church’s second missional priority is creating an atmosphere in which grace-filled relationships can develop.
The Way We Do It – The Church considers the many dynamics at work in its mission field and then determines the best Way to accomplish the mission. To do so, the Church must be like the men of Issachar “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” See I Chronicles 12:32. May God grant us the wisdom to know our times so we can choose effective Ways to accomplish His mission.
To start our discussion regarding the Way we do it, let’s consider the elephant in the room: The Church.
Christianity has been a dominant influence in the world for thousands of years. If we’re going to understand the times in which we live, we must consider the long-term influence the Church has had on the world and our local mission field.
Clearly, the Church has experienced success. It is estimated that 2.6 billion people worldwide currently identify with the Christian faith. That’s the good news, however…
In John 17, Jesus identified unity as the missional core value of the Church. With that in mind, how do we explain the fact that the universal Church has splintered into tens of thousands of denominations and independent groupings? How is it that local churches are constantly experiencing inward strife, stressed relationships, nasty divisions, and splits? Church, all that infighting has made us rather unattractive – even to many Christians! Whether we are willing to admit it or not, our local mission field views the Church as a bit suspect—a dysfunctional group unworthy of their trust—and all due to our inability to live in unity. If we’re going to “understand our times,” then we need to be willing to take an honest look at ourselves.
Church, how did we get here? How is it that there are estimated to be between thirty and forty thousand denominations and independent Christian groups operating in the world today? How is it that Lycoming County alone has eighty different Christian denominations and independent groups functioning right here in our local mission field? If unity is vital to the mission, then how did we get here?
My question isn’t meant to be critical. After all, I pastor one of those churches. The question is intended to help us Christians consider why the people in our local mission field don’t value the Church and aren’t in a hurry to participate. If we can’t see ourselves from their perspective, then we’ll never know how to be an effective channel of God’s grace.
To understand how we got here, we need to take a quick tour of Church history (and I do mean quick).
The Pre-Church Jesus gathered His disciples and prepared them to be the inaugural leaders of the Church. In His chosen Church, Jesus encountered men driven by selfish ambition, weak faith, and fear. Listen, even when the Church was pastored by Jesus Himself and consisted of only twelve hand-picked members, it still had problems! I’m guessing we’re going to have problems too. That’s an important point because if you think the Church is supposed to be perfect, then you’re going to be disappointed.
The Primal Church, The Book of Acts, records the birth of the Church and the exponential growth it experienced, but it also reveals the difficult challenges it encountered, including inward disagreements and dysfunction, and severe outward persecution. Yes, even with the infilling presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Church still had problems.
The Proliferating Church Persecution scattered the Church, and Paul’s missionary journeys expanded the Church. Paul’s pastoral letters provided distant churches and their leaders with teaching, encouragement, correction, clarification on doctrinal issues, and nuanced guidance on how the Church should operate in various cultural settings. Today, many churches disagree on the meaning of what he wrote and how it applies to our lives and churches – and much of that disagreement divides us.
The Protected Church 313—380 The Edict of Milan granted Christianity protection within the Roman Empire. This began the building era of the Church, but history also records the diluting of Christianity as conversion became socially acceptable. Protection created its own set of problems for the Church – and we are facing similar problems today – just something to keep in mind.
The Powerful Church 380—1517 The Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. We all know that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the Church could not resist the temptations that came with political power. Again, the Church is facing similar problems today.
The Partitioning Church 1517—Today The Protestant Reformation, intended to confront the corruption of power, splintered the Church and ushered in a long era of Church division over doctrine, government, and methods. This is the era in which we live – and the splintering just keeps happening. Again, I’m not passing judgment; I’m just helping us to see ourselves from the world’s perspective. If we’re willing, to be honest, division just isn’t a good look.
So, what do we do with this first part of the discussion? What Ways can we employ in our local mission field to improve Christian unity as we seek to be the effective channels of God’s grace? Before I offer my thoughts, I’d like you to chew on it and have some conversations. After all, this column is called Faith Conversations for a reason. I’ll do the same, and then we’ll continue our discussion in the next article.