There are many reasons why I thank God for our sending church in Kentucky. They are gospel-explicit in their prayers, songs, and preaching. They have a heart to welcome in those from all cultures and to send out church planters and missionaries far and wide. They model healthy congregationalism and plurality of elders. They are long-suffering with the struggling and serious about raising up men of conviction to lead the church. But among these things, I also thank the Lord for this church because it was when I was a member there that I truly learned to love the local church.
Yes, for a number of years I loved the nations, but I did not yet love the Church. Rather, I did not yet love the local church. I grew up a missionary kid. As such I grew up in between lots of different churches. Leadership changed multiple times at my parent’s sending church. On furloughs we visited many supporting churches. We ourselves were involved in multiple national churches when my father was alive – three different churches every Sunday when I was a four year old. Then when it was just my mom and my brothers, we plugged in as members at a national church, looking to serve and grow as we were able, yet still not quite able to be all in. The missionary life is often one of transition and different kinds of connections to at least several churches. This naturally risks a decreasing sense of the importance of the local church. Or at least an atypical orientation to the local church that can have strange effects upon those tasked with planting them.
I first sensed a call to the nations while in high school, and this was confirmed when I was a freshman in college in Minneapolis. At that time I had gotten my first taste of what membership in a vibrant and healthy church could look like – and it was amazing. But after nine months I was off to the Middle East, membership classes completed, but membership not finalized. Those nine months were long enough to get a taste of healthy church, but not long enough to be all in. Not enough to be inoculated against the house-church-only ideology and insider methodology that I would later be drawn towards. I was, because of the bulk of my experience, still too open to the idea that the way we’ve done church all along is deeply flawed. It was also 2008, when things in the Emerging and Emergent church movements were nearing their high water mark. Conversations on rethinking church were all over Christian blogosphere and dominating new church planting books. I was amazed at the new and burgeoning house churches I was seeing in my overseas context and for the first time wrestling with the problems of doing traditional church in a persecution context. This, paired with certain methodology books and conversations, sent me over the edge. On my return to the US, my words to a mentor were, “I’m done with the way we do church in America.”
Upon that return to the US I spent a semester doing house church in the US. It was a very valuable experience, but it continued to affirm my trajectory. The traditional churches I visited in that small college town also strengthened my resolve to do church differently. It was only when I visited a close friend, at what would become my future church in Kentucky, that my church convictions began to be a little shaken. I remember looking around at the mid-sized congregation deeply engaged in a gospel-explicit worship song together and thinking, this isn’t quite the passivity that I’ve been claiming always takes place in “big church.” The members were also inviting me to move down to their city to help them reach out to Muslim refugees. More troubling non-passivity. In fact, as I got to know them they actually seemed more skilled at fleshing out the priesthood of all believers than most house churches I had seen. But they have a building! Astaghfurallah! After moving, I started visiting that church, thinking that even though I still had serious doubts about this methodology of church, this was a place where at least they were rock solid on the gospel – which in spite of some fuzziness I still knew deep down was more important than methodology.
To this day I still love and value the house church model. It’s the only model that will be possible for most churches among my Central Asian people group. It’s a model with some serious strengths! But that church in Kentucky taught me that the DNA of a healthy church is not limited by where a church meets – building, house, under a tree, size, etc. Rather, the DNA of a healthy church expresses itself in any body of believers that simply implements faithful expressions of the biblical principles. I learned that those expressions could vary, should vary even. And thus, all of a sudden I was no longer a house-church-only guy.
But that was the minor shift. The much more important shift happened more slowly as I came to absorb a new orientation to the local church. Previously I had largely felt that the local church was, in some sense, a means to the end. A means to reaching the nations. But I came to understand how central the local church is, not just for what it can accomplish, but in itself, in its own glory as the bride of Christ (Eph 5:32), the household of God (1 Tim 3:15), the wisdom of God on brilliant display (Eph 3:10). I had loved the nations and I had merely appreciated the church (at best). But I was coming to love the local church itself as I marinated in its life over a much longer period than I had anticipated. I had planned for a quick turnaround, going back overseas as soon as I could knock out that undergrad. But God had other plans. I stayed in Kentucky for seven years, a member of that local church, eventually becoming a leader there. It was exactly what I needed. As a missionary who loved the nations, my lack of love for the local church was my blindspot.
How tragic that so many (like I was) are serving as overseas church planters when they don’t yet love the local church. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a great number of evangelical missionaries overseas merely tolerate the local church back home (and some even despise it). It makes sense. Their experience is mostly with unhealthy churches. Then they receive a call to the nations. They go, hoping to plant churches, not knowing what exactly they want to see, but knowing they do not want to reproduce what they saw done in the West. They get converted to one methodology or another that tries to reinvent church and muddles up the difference between biblical principles and cultural expressions. If churches are planted, they often don’t last, or they last and go mutant. Sometimes the missionaries themselves stop focusing on church altogether, focusing only on good causes or disciple-making. “So, you still believe in church planting, huh?” is how one veteran put it to me.
We must not send missionaries (especially church planters) to the nations who do not love the local church. If their position is the way we’ve done church all along is deeply flawed, then I would suggest they are at great risk of falling into deeply unhelpful, even dangerous, trajectories. How will they reproduce what they have never seen nor lived? Yes, God is gracious and sometimes missionaries are able to plant healthy churches moving purely from the page into reality, having never experienced a healthy church back home (I know some like this!). But anyone experienced in mentoring and ministry knows the utter importance of modeling. And even with modeling, we tend to underrate the importance of soaking, marinating, sitting, loving, absorbing and “catching” a deep affection for the local church. To truly love her, you must actually sit with her a while and come to know her.
What is to be done so that those who love the nations will also love the local church? Pastors and sending churches need to teach and live a robust and beautiful biblical ecclesiology. We must teach it, so that even if our church is a modern day Corinth, those sent out will have deep convictions about what a biblical church is and its centrality to all of ministry. We must live it, so that those sent out will have some faithful expressions of biblical principles to draw on when they attempt to replicate those principles overseas – ideally with local contextualized expressions (Please don’t cookie-cutter FBC Somewhereburg – that’s not what I’m saying). We should also consider the importance of inviting would be church planting missionaries into pastoral ministry before they go overseas so that they come to be able to think and feel a bit more like pastors. Most of us overseas are not wired like pastors. They tend to think differently than we frontier missionary types do, and we need to learn from their shepherd-like hearts.
The local church is simply amazing, even in all its imperfection. It is lovely. And it is to the detriment of the nations if their pioneer church planters do not feel this way about the local church. Perhaps this should even be a screening question for those who profess a call to the nations: “Please tell me, do you love the local church?”