Every missionary church planter should have biblical clarity on minimum church vs. mature church. By minimum church, I am referring to what has been called the ecclesiological minimum, that point at which a gathering has the bare essentials required to be called a church in the biblical sense. A lot could be added, but take anything away and it is no longer a church. By mature church, I’m referring to a church that has grown into a full and healthy expression of a covenant community. It is mature, not in the sense that it has no room for growth, but in that it has the real presence of all the biblical characteristics of a healthy church.
Why is it important to understand minimum church? The role of a church planter is to start new churches. This demands the ability to discern when a bible study, outreach group, or potential church has arrived at the point whereby it can biblically be called an actual church. Is a church merely two or three unbelievers gathered in Jesus’ name? Is it a couple Christian friends going fishing? Is it a group of college students who meet regularly for worship and prayer sessions? No, but the does Bible speak to this threshold where a group becomes a fledgling church. Every missionary church planter needs to wrestle with the sum of the biblical teaching on this question and arrive at a point of convictional clarity. And teams need to share a common understanding and use the language of church accordingly.
Call it what it is – a house group, a potential church, a bible study – but don’t call it a church until it actually is one. Too often the term church is used in a careless and undefined way by missionaries who themselves don’t have clarity on this point. Many are merely reacting to bad experiences with the Western church or experimenting with theories floated in missiology. Others have simply never been trained or challenged to wrestle with the scriptures over these questions. On the other hand, other missionaries with a robust ecclesiology sometimes aren’t ready to call something a church that is actually a church, albeit an immature one. They have assumed that a mature church is the minimum required to actually be a church. In this they have gone beyond the scriptures and might not make the progress they could have otherwise. They are in a sense ignorant of the sapling for love of the tree.
Yet missionary church planters desperately need clarity on mature church. Many church plants overseas fail because the minimum is assumed to be sufficient for a strong movement. And yet it is not. Mature churches last. Immature churches often die or go mutant. Given the sum of the scriptures, what are all of the characteristics of a mature church? Can we spell them out and can we compare and contrast them with the key characteristics of a minimum church? Do we have enough clarity on this to not only write a paper, but also to write it out on a napkin or to speak freely and spontaneously on this topic with a local leader in training? If not, we likely have some work to do in the pursuit of clarity. Clarity on the nature of the church will only serve us in our work. It is not legalistic, Western, nor paternalistic to ask that all of our missionary church planters have a biblical understanding of the church’s infancy and its adulthood. That understanding will instead put missionaries in the best position to actually plant biblical contextualized churches. They will know what they are looking at and they will know what they are aiming for.
The Biblical data on church is the same, but there are diverse ways it can be summarized in a healthy way. Everyone will have to make choices about which characteristics and categories get put under this umbrella term or that category, or how many characteristics you use in your summary of the biblical data. So let’s none of us pretend that all of our summaries have to look exactly the same. But we are dealing with the same biblical data. We need to make sure each summary faithfully accounts for all of it. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say, but we are still working with the same thing – a cat skin. If yours comes out looking like anything else, there’s probably something wrong.
My organization uses twelve characteristics to describe a healthy church (See here for further definition, p. 61). They are:
- Teaching and Preaching
- Accountability and Discipline
By summarizing the Bible’s teaching on church into these twelve categories, we have a succinct yet robust way to talk about a mature church. My team regularly reviews this material and has come up with a memory tool so that we can each reproduce these twelve characteristics on the spot (5 ‘ships GET A MOP). It’s one thing to know how to find the characteristics in some notes somewhere. It’s another thing (especially in an oral culture) to be able to have them stored in your mind and ready to be shared at a moment’s notice. Our memory tool is strange enough to be memorable (a principle that also works for new vocab! Absurdity = retention).
So that is our summary of a mature church. To keep things simple, we’ve been working with these same characteristics to distinguish the threshold of minimum church. Here’s where I currently draw that line:
Minimum church – numbers 1-6 can be present and a group not yet be a church in the biblical sense. The key addition of number 7 makes this minimum church.
- Preaching and Teaching
- Ordinances (the point of transition to becoming a church, including self and covenant identity)
Mature church – when these five elements are present and added to the previous seven, a church can be considered mature. Notice the need for greater organization and structure required here.
- Accountability and Discipline
This kind of clarity helps us immensely as we think about the task of church planting. When does a church become a church? What constitutes the transition point? What do we work on developing next once we have a baby church on our hands? What is our vision of a mature church in all of its beauty? How do I summarize the wealth of biblical content on church in a way that is faithful but reproducible? These tools have been helpful for my team in answering these questions.
This post is meant to be a mere summary of this topic, the cliffnotes as it were of a potentially very thick volume. An ecclesiology that is both robustly biblical and practical is a major area of needed focus in contemporary missions. But for today, my main claim is that every missionary church planter needs a clear and biblical view of minimum church vs. mature church.
If we can all return to the scriptures to seek greater clarity and conviction on these points, many more of the churches planted overseas will not only last but will also multiply in a healthy way. It is my prayer that both will indeed occur to a greater extent.