What Are You Calling a Church?

In the words of renowned theologian Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word I am referring to here is church. And when it comes to communication between missionaries and Christians back in their supporting churches, this word is used often, but almost never defined. What often results is a failure in communication that leaves both parties feeling good, but ultimately failing to serve one another well.

Let’s say a missionary or organization reports on a certain number of churches that have been planted. This receives much applause and leads to much rejoicing. And yet what those reporting on the field mean by that little word, church, can sometimes be nothing like what the supporters back home are thinking of when they hear that same word.

Perhaps a Christian or pastor back in the home country hears a missionary report that 1,000 churches have been planted. In his mind, he envisions 1,000 smallish congregations, each maybe several dozen strong, containing diverse believers from a given community who now form a new spiritual family for one another. He projects his image of small church plants which he has encountered in his home country onto the report he hears about this overseas region. The missionary, on the other hand, influenced by a movement missiology, counts a gathering as a church if there’s merely a believing husband and wife who read the Bible weekly with their unbelieving teenage son. Or, he reports a church when two cousins who are secret believers meet up monthly to read, pray, and whisper-sing some songs together. Or perhaps a group of five college students who meet regularly with a local pastor for a time of Bible study.

None of these gatherings are bad at all. Each are worthy of celebration. But that doesn’t mean we can assume they are churches. What is lacking is agreement upon what standard is used to call something a church.

The missionary might report 1,000 churches planted and the home audience in one sense hears that 1,000 churches have been planted. Yet they are not actually communicating with one another, because they are not using the word church in the same way. This means that what one envisions in their mind when those words are spoken is wildly different from what the other sees in their respective mind’s eye. The missionary knows that if all the groups of 3 or 4 people meet, this represents somewhere around 3,000 – 4,000 people, a mix of believers and unbelievers, most of whom gather only with those of the same natural household or family. However, the home audience is assuming something more like 20,000 – 30,000 people total, all believers meeting with others from different households. The missionary means 3,000 not leaving the natural bounds of their own network. The crowd understands him to mean 30,000 forming new spiritual families. This is, at best, a failure of communication. At worst, it is downright deception.

This entire interaction can take place without either party acknowledging the great divide in their definitions of the word church. And as long as this goes unaddressed, both sides can leave feeling pretty good about things. But it must be addressed. Missionaries and their sending churches are accountable to one another. This even applies to reporting. If missionaries mean something wildly different from their senders when they use the term church, then this needs to be made public. And for the good of the mission, common definitions and parameters must be agreed upon for when it is appropriate to call a group a church.

This is the point where most Christians realize that they are operating out of experience and assumptions rather than a thought-out ecclesiology. So step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. So far, so good. All church-planting missionaries and all pastors should be able to readily articulate what constitutes a potential church, a true but immature church, a healthy church, or a false church. Please, don’t send anyone to the mission field who can’t do this.

For example, our group of five college students represent a potential or formative church. Despite what certain methodologies might claim, I do not believe that they can biblically call themselves a church even though they regularly meet with a pastor to receive teaching, to worship, and to pray together. Several key ingredients are missing, such as the biblical self-identification as a church (covenanting) and the Lord’s supper and baptism. Now, if they had these elements in place, but no elders, giving, or mission, then they could be a true but immature church. A healthy church is simply one which is well on its way to implementing all of the Bible’s characteristics of a church.

We like to summarize these biblical characteristics into a list of twelve: Discipleship, Worship, Leadership, Membership, Fellowship, Giving, Evangelism, Teaching/Preaching, Accountability/Discipline, Mission, Ordinances, and Prayer.

A useful exercise is to list out these twelve characteristics (or a comparable list which summarizes the data differently) and to try to discern which elements can be present without a group actually being a church. Then try to figure out from scripture and church history where the line is that separates a potential church from an actual church. When I do this, I end up first with a formative church section full of a bunch of elements that could take place in a college ministry, such as teaching and fellowship, separated by the ordinances from a cluster of organized church elements such as membership and accountability/discipline that take place in a true – if still maturing – church. I personally like to then make a third division which separates what I call an organized church from a sending church, since so many churches end up implementing eleven of these twelve characteristics, without ever getting involved in church planting and missions. Again, I’d define a healthy church as one committed to implementing all twelve. A false church would be a church where in either the teaching or the practice a false gospel is proclaimed. Here is a basic diagram of how I have tried to chart things out.

Earlier I mentioned that step one is to examine the scriptures to see what it says about the necessary ingredients by which we can call something a church. Step two is simply to then adjust your language accordingly. Don’t call something a church that is not a church. Be intentional in when you make the shift in terminology from group to church. Communicate your biblical rationale for when and why you start calling a group a church so that people understand what you mean by the term. If, like me, you believe that a mere three people could sometimes actually constitute a true church, then explain the biblical and situational rationale for this.

Step three then is to hold your ground. No matter the pressure you might feel to report higher numbers. No matter what the missiology gurus say about how good or bad this is for multiplication. Call things what the Bible calls them, and hold your ground. Sometimes this will mean surprising supporters back home who have projected church buildings, pastors with theological degrees, and certain size congregations onto the biblical meaning of church. Other times this will mean running afoul of the current trend in missiology that your leadership is so excited about. But the way the Bible uses a term is our truest window into the real, eternal meaning of that word. So let’s stick with that, and not deal in the more temporary definitions.

Finally, we must not be shy to ask others how they are defining that word, church. We cannot truly serve one another if massively different understandings of this term are simultaneously taking place while we all clap for the report of thousands of “churches” that have been planted. My sense is that many denominations and pastors would be scandalized to hear what their missionaries are actually calling churches, if they would only press for detailed definitions.

Some missionaries will not want you to press. This is a warning sign. It may mean these missionaries feel that they are superior to the Church back home or that they operate in what could be called a missiology of reaction, where their goal is above all to not do church as they have experienced it back home. Lots of weird missiology is the result of this kind of posture, but not healthy churches that last.

Trustworthy missionaries, however, won’t mind you asking. In fact, they may find your questions downright encouraging. After all, faithful missionaries have thought carefully about these things. Why? Because the front lines force them to wrestle with these things, and to examine their Bibles. But even more so, because they love the local church, and so they honor her with their language.

Photo by Rosie Sun on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “What Are You Calling a Church?

  1. We just moved into missions last year and defining the word church has caused a lot of backlash for us both from missionaries and the sending people .It even caused us to wonder if we had done something wrong .Your article gives me hope that we are on the right track.

    Liked by 1 person

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