My corner of Central Asia has long, brutally hot summers. Temperatures get up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit/49 degrees Celsius. This tends to kill most house plants. If, like me, and you’re not naturally gifted with a green thumb, then it’s even more bad news. The majority of our plant attempts have ended in disappointment. We might be able to swing it if we were constantly living here, but with taking six months in the US now and then and occasional trips out for meetings, we have to entrust care of our plants to neighbors or coworkers – which usually means more plants die. Sensing a theme? The brutal sunshine and heat of the late spring to mid-fall even turns the mountains brown. How much more small plants that are attempting to grow in tile and cement courtyards and houses that absorb the heat and radiate it back long into the night?
Yet we have one plant that has become legendary in our family. We inherited this plant in January of 2016 from another expat family moving back to the US. We didn’t know what it was, just some kind of pokey aloe-type succulent. During our first term all our other plants died, but this hardy creature managed to survive and even grow a little bit. In the details of moving back to the US for a six month furlough, we forgot to assign watering duties for it. So we arrived back in Central Asia to find it tucked in a corner of our courtyard, utterly shriveled and brown. It had gone six months, including the worst of the summer, without any care. In a last-ditch faith attempt, I splashed it with a glass of water one evening, not really expecting anything to happen. When I returned to look at it the next morning, I was shocked. It had been resurrected. The dry and drooping leaves had somehow rallied, raised themselves back toward the sun and come back from the pit of death. Mostly dead really is still partly alive (let the reader understand).
We moved cities and took our one hardy survivor plant with us. Then after nine months we ended up back in the US again on a medical leave. Our local neighbors did their best to water our plants, but once again, most died. And yet, that same plant is bigger than ever and even multiplying. During the first lockdown I had done a bit of research and finally discovered what species our pokey desert plant actually was. Turns out it’s called a Century Plant, a kind of aloe known for being… the source of tequila. How in the world did it get over here to Central Asia?
As we marveled at the survival of our tequila plant, we found it to be an unlikely source of encouragement. The attrition rate among our house plants had become a strange parallel to the deaths of local church plants. Our area and people group tend to present a vibrant and hopeful picture in the beginning of new groups forming. Then they all implode. Soon, those promising potential churches are gone without a trace. Where all the methodologies come to die. It’s a sadly realistic slogan for our part of the world. Got a methodology that’s being puffed as the current silver bullet for planting churches (or even movements?) among unreached people groups? Bring it here and watch it wither, just like my Brazilian Jasmine vine. Those flowers and shiny leaves were lovely until they met the wrath of the summer sun. Now they are no more.
And yet, we know that the promises of God for his bride will not fail. Sooner or later, we will have healthy reproducing churches take root among our people group. They will be able to survive the brutal seasons of persecution, fear, in-fighting, and false teaching. But they will have to be unusually hardy, scrappy churches. They will need to be able to come back from the brink of death, as it were. They will have to be like tequila plants. Their fiber will need to be made up of robust biblical conviction and gospel clarity. They will need to be fluent and practical in their putting on of the characteristics of a healthy church:
Biblical Teaching and Preaching
Biblical Accountability and Discipline
These churches will not only need conviction and clarity on the biblical principles for a healthy church, they will also need to find faithful expressions of those principles that fit both the scriptures and our local context. With the same spiritual DNA as a church in Melanesia or North America, these churches will need to find hardy expressions of that DNA for a context that kills off expressions developed in more temperate climates. I’m not at all talking about reinventing church. Whether something feels traditional or new and exciting has nothing to do with it. Rather, as church planters, our sense is actually that we will have to be both more doggedly biblical and more carefully contextual than we have been thus far. We need to be able to draw bright and clear lines from our method to the scriptures and then to the local context.
So locals say a plurality of pastors is utterly foreign to this culture? Well, let’s still do it, because it’s biblical. But lets go so deep into their culture and history such that we find echoes in their past (like tribal elders) that help contextually illustrate the biblical leadership principle. Let’s take off our Western preference for informal/funny leadership relations and put on a Central Asian appreciation for titles, ceremony, and gravitas. Let’s actually try to wrap our minds around the complex patron-client system that dominates this worldview so that we and local believers can address it biblically – redeeming, redirecting, and rejecting as necessary. After all, the New Testament church itself upended the patron-client system of the Roman empire. How did they do it? Let’s not plateau in our understanding of theology nor our understanding of our local culture. Instead, let’s go deeper in both.
If we can work like this, then we just may see local churches emerge that last. We just may see churches that are like tequila plants.
“How can I not give a support salary to a local believing leader when I myself am funded by support?”
This is not an uncommon struggle for missionaries who are trying to plant self-supporting churches in foreign contexts. If it’s OK for me to be living on support from Western churches, well then why not this local evangelist? It’s easy to see why this question rests heavy on the minds of missionaries, awash as they usually are in requests for financial help from locals.
And yet dependency upon Western dollars is a major problem, undercutting the emergence of healthy churches in many places overseas and stunting local believers in their growth. Time and again, well-meaning teams, organizations, and visitors will generously give out cash, vehicles, and salaries to locals who are indeed in financial need. Soon this becomes the expectation. In my Central Asian context there has never been a self-supporting local church. The precedent set by Christian organizations here is that local believers should usually be hired, salaried, and otherwise financially supported. Because of this, local aspiring church leaders hunt on social media and in our region for foreign patrons who will bankroll them so that they can finally serve Jesus as they feel they deserve to. Locals hosting a house church demand that the church pay their monthly rent. Other believers balk at the idea of doing discipleship without financial remuneration. After all, a worker is worthy of his wages. Sadly, entitlement is not too strong a word to use for the money culture that exists here among the small community of local believers.
The saddest part of it all is that local believers don’t learn how to give sacrificially. Dependent as they are on Western dollars, they often give a tiny symbolic amount to their local gathering – a massive contrast to their generosity toward their kin and close friends. The culture of giving among local believers is woefully underdeveloped. So it becomes a reinforcing cycle. Locals don’t give because the Western dollars are expected to flow liberally. The Western dollars flow because the locals don’t give, meaning their leaders can’t provide for their families. Locals therefore stay spiritual children in this regard, not growing up into the mature blessings that come from giving sacrificially (2 Cor 9).
My approach among my local friends is to simply ask their community to do what ours back in the West (and in Melanesia) has done. Work hard. Give generously to the church. Support your pastors. Serve the poor. Then give even more to send out your own evangelists and church planters. This is what has happened among healthy church networks all over the world. We are not asking our local friends to go through any kind of a different process. “Your people should do what my people have done.” It’s that simple. The shortcuts are treacherous. I live on support, yes, and I am therefore a preview of what your church will also be able to do if you embrace the New Testament vision of work and giving to the glory of God. You will send supported missionaries to other places who will also there raise up self-funded churches.
It is not hypocrisy for me to live on support and to ask my local friends to have locally-supported leaders. I am for them. I am for their spiritual maturity. I long for the day when local funds raised by local churches will send locals as cross-cultural missionaries to other people groups. This can happen. But it won’t happen if they remain dependent on Western dollars, stunted spiritually by the lack of this spiritual discipline of giving – and in greater danger of the ever-encroaching love of money. A worker is worthy of his wages (1 Tim 6:18). But let’s make sure we notice the context of that verse. The previous sentences are speaking of elders who lead well (v. 17). These are men who are tested, who are not new converts, who were free from the love of money before they became elders (1st Tim 3, Titus 1). These are men who have a track record of faithful leadership. Years of faithfulness have been invested without pay into the local church. By all means, let’s salary these kinds of brothers so they can be more free to devote themselves to the word and to prayer! But let that salary be locally-raised, or, part of high-accountability decreasing support plan where foreign support gets lower as local support ramps up – not unlike what we do for most North American church plants.
I’m not saying that there’s never an appropriate time for foreign dollars to fund local leaders overseas. But in many contexts it has caused absolute carnage among the churches. Foreign dollars are certainly among our top three church-killers locally. We need to grapple with this. Foreign financial support, if attempted, must be done very carefully and wisely, always with an explicit vision toward self-supporting local churches. There are usually better ways to invest Western money, such as helping local leaders get the training needed to start a business or get hired. Teach a man to fish, as the saying goes. Or, like Paul, teach a man to make tents.
I will have another chance to sit down with some local brothers this next week. They have asked to meet me and I’ve learned that they have a reputation for being salary-seekers. Money will likely come up. I hope to humbly invite them to follow me as I follow Christ. I’ve walked a good, hard, slow path toward now being fully supported to do gospel work. My path involved years of faithful volunteering, demonstrating to myself and to the church that I would do the work of evangelism, discipleship, and service no matter what, support or no support. “Will you also follow this good path that many others have walked before us? Will your people do as my people have done?” It may be harder, but in the end it is indeed a sweeter road – and safer too.
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.
I waited anxiously at the hole-in-the wall restaurant where we had agreed to meet. It was the kind of place that specialized in a Central Asian pizza of sorts, flatbread with ground beef, oil, and spices spread on top of it. Not the most compatible meal with anxiety. *Hama was running a little late and I was worried that he would bail on me. I was excited that he had agreed to visit a local house church with me for their midweek evening meeting. But I also knew the great fear locals have of meeting with others from their own people group to do something technically illegal – to study the teachings of Jesus in rejection of Islam.
Thankfully, both Hama and *Aden arrived. Aden was another good friend of mine. He had been a believer for a couple years and was a passionate young evangelist as well as being a goofball. I hoped that they would hit it off given the fact that Hama was almost a believer and also appreciated a good prank. The first meeting could have been worse. They sized one another up and had some respectful dialogue, but I sensed some hesitation in Hama.
“Still want to go, Hama?”
“Yes, I still want to. I have some important questions and after what happened with my sister…”
“Well,” I said, “I’m glad you’re taking this risk. I’ve visited this group a few times over these past months and I think they’ll be very receptive to your visit and to your questions.”
I wondered if this visit would be the one to push Hama over the edge. He clearly was wrestling with faith in Jesus, but he knew it would come at a cost.
We walked the ten minutes or so to the house where the church was gathering. It was in a neighborhood just down the hill from the strip of restaurants where we’d met. We left our shoes at the front door, contributing to the couple dozen that were already fanned out there. As we entered the room, everyone broke from their conversation and immediately stood up, proclaiming respectful greetings, making honorable gestures, and shaking hands at the same time. We were pointed to the more honorable side of the room, where guests were always invited to sit. We chose a spot still considered honorable, but shifted over to the side a bit, communicating both an appreciation for the gesture and our own desire to let others take the better spots on the floor. The hosts waited to sit until we had already found our spots, sitting cross-legged on the carpet.
More choruses of welcoming phrases followed, accompanied by honorable responses from Hama and Aden and to a lesser extent, myself. Americans just say “thanks” to everything so it takes us a while to get used to utilizing the several dozen respectful greetings and responses that Central Asians fire, machine-gun style, into their every day interactions. Twelve years later, I’m still not a pro, but I’m certainly better at it than I was back then. It helped when I realized that the other party isn’t actually fully listening to your barrage of pleasantries, busy as they are producing their own.
Two men in their late thirties were the obvious leaders of the group, both dressed in traditional attire. Most of the rest of the guests were young twenty-somethings, like my friend Aden. They were dressed in Western clothing. There were only a few women present at this meeting and they chose to meet in the next room over. One of these men, *Zane, was the pastor, and *Allen was his assistant-in-training. Both had quite the background story, with Zane surviving assassination attempts and *Allen being a former member of a terrorist organization. As a twenty-year-old missionary, I was just going to sit back and pray and let these guys do the talking.
The plan had been to continue their study through the book of Revelation and spend some time in prayer together, but they condensed their meeting in order to have abundant time to interact with Hama. After a brief study and prayer together (lifting up one of the members who couldn’t come because he’d been beaten by his brothers again), we sang a few worship songs. This particular house church had some issues with tying their teaching too closely with the political aims of their people (sound familiar?), but man, could they sing. I’ve yet to be part of another group where the singing was as passionate as this one. They would often start their songs off in roaring A Capella, clapping, and in the wrong key and tempo, much to the consternation of the violin player who was supposed to be leading. Still, they meant it. Living through persecution together can have a powerful effect on corporate worship.
After this, they invited Hama to share his story and why he was interested in knowing about Jesus. Hama shared for about fifteen minutes, telling about his years in the UK, his disillusionment with Islam, his study in Matthew, and his sister’s recent healing. Zane listened intently, leaning in. I could see why all these young men were a part of his group. He was a natural leader. His sudden and secret departure for Europe a year later would largely shatter this church – an unfortunate result of him being offered some kind of position as a pastor in Germany.
After Hama was done sharing, Zane began his response. He probably spoke for about thirty minutes, weaving in and out of different reasons why Jesus was the true way and Islam was false. Hama listened and nodded soberly. I kept praying. Zane’s words were going deep. The one part that I clearly remember is when he gestured to a young man sitting in the corner.
“You see him? He’s a part of our enemy people group. His people committed genocide against us. If we were Muslims we would still hate each other. Right, *Elijah?”
“That’s right,” Elijah grinned.
Zane continued, “But because of Jesus we are brothers now. We love one another and we even love that American guy who brought you too. We are all one family now because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies. Only by believing in him is this possible.”
Hama nodded and I stopped listening to what Zane was saying next as I chewed on what had just occurred. I hadn’t known that Elijah was from that enemy people group. What a powerful testimony to the unity the gospel can produce. These men really should hate one another and Elias should hate me, given his background. Yet here we are.
Zane finished up eventually and closed the meeting. We said our respectful goodbyes and walked back toward the restaurant area. Several of the young men were heading that way too. One of them kept pressing Hama with one evangelistic argument after another. Hama was half listening, but his brain was clearly already saturated. He wasn’t in need of more information, but in need of some time for reflection.
“It’s true, you know,” Elijah said putting his arms around me and Aden. I should hate you and I should hate you and you should both hate me! But we are brothers now… Look at what Jesus has done!”
Even though that house church eventually fell apart, Elijah’s words that night have remained with me. The power of his mere joyful presence in that group of natural enemies was a small window into what eternity will look like – and into what healthy churches among our people group can look like also.
Many in missions emphasize the need to plant only people-group specific churches. The logic is that planting churches combining those from different ethnicities will hamper church multiplication. While I understand the push for speed comes from a motive to see as many reached as possible, I can’t help thinking that the speed will come at the loss of a particular kind of power and beauty. The power and beauty I saw on display that evening as Elijah walked with us. No longer an enemy, now a brother.
A name great and renowned, but a village broken down.
Local Oral Tradition
This Central Asian proverb speaks to the importance of a leader’s immediate circle and responsibilities. He may have an impressive reputation, but the state of his household and village tell a lot about his real character and leadership. If teaching locals on the eldership qualifications from 1st Timothy chapter 3, I would use this local proverb as one way to illustrate the statement that an overseer must “manage his own household well” (1st Timothy 3:4). Ground the teaching in the text, illustrate it with the culture. In this case, with the oral tradition.
 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared,  who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.  For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,  for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5 ESV)
We’ve been studying through 1st Timothy as a team during our digital team meetings. I highly recommend working through books of scripture with your church-planting team. As always, you will find the word of God stirring your affections for the gospel as well as emphasizing things that we might otherwise neglect. When the application lens is not only personal, but also with a view toward facilitating cross-cultural church plants, these studies can make for fascinating and helpful discussion. They can also alert us to dangers coming our way that the church has been facing from the beginning, as this passage does here.
Paul here highlights a certain stream of false teaching, one that is ultimately demonic, but which is facilitated through false teachers. This brand of false teaching is more conservative than the gospel. Specifically, it forbids certain created things (marriage, foods) and by the way it does so it denies the goodness of God’s creation. This is likely some brand of asceticism, that philosophical plague that has unceasingly dogged the church, teaching or implying that physical matter is really evil and that only the spiritual is good. In asceticism, the “truly devoted” Christians will give up these lesser physical things to try to reach a higher plane of spiritual existence or enlightenment. Paul points out that some will actually walk away from faith in the gospel to go down this more conservative road, when instead they should have acknowledged the goodness and freedom of God’s creation – where everything can be made holy by thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.
Some will walk away because Christians who live by the gospel are not conservative or radical enough for them. While individual Christians may gouge out an eye if they stumble in certain ways (e.g. alcohol or meat sacrificed to idols), that’s not enough for these who are falling away. They demand a different posture from the believing community toward certain created things and a new law forbidding them altogether. In doing so, they depart from true Christianity.
In our corner of Central Asia, we usually have local believers accusing us of being too conservative. Having cast off the restrictions of Islam, many struggle to understand and embrace the high moral standards the free gospel of grace calls us to live by. The momentum of the pendulum swings hard in the direction of licentiousness. They are shocked to find out that Jesus forbids sex outside of monogamous marriage, that the Bible forbids drunkenness and lying, and that we are called to give our money generously to the church. Isn’t God all about love and grace? What’s with all these restrictions? This isn’t Islam, after all!
And yet we are helped to anticipate others falling away in the other direction. Islam and Central Asian culture have very strong categories for the clean and the unclean. Matter is in a sense divided between good matter and bad matter. Pork and alcohol are two of the better known unclean substances. But if you dig a little deeper, you discover an underlying struggle to categorize all of life as clean or unclean. Religious call-in shows are full of old women calling in to get the mullah’s advice on the minutiae of whether doing something in a certain way is actually clean or unclean. And Islamic teaching often emphasizes the uncleanness of physical bodies – especially the uncleanness of the female body.
For some who profess faith, it will be a scandalous idea that one is not made spiritually unclean by pork, alcohol, praying without washing, menstruation, lovemaking, wearing nail polish, having cats and dogs as pets, or a hundred other things. Some will make it through this struggle. The Holy Spirit says that others will not. They will sadly go on to make new laws, forbidding good created gifts in such a way as to spit on God’s handiwork. It is good for us to be aware of this so that we are not shocked when it happens.
As one of my teammates pointed out, we tend to despise certain kinds of matter if they are connected to areas that we personally struggle with. So, my Western family is tempted to feel like some foods or technology are inherently bad because we have struggled with self-control or brokenness in these areas. But in spite of what we feel, the eternal word of God teaches us that everything created is good and can be made holy through thanksgiving, the word, and prayer.
Some will fall away because we are not conservative enough. But we will keep on proclaiming and living by faith in the tension of our own fallenness and the goodness of creation. We may forbid things for ourselves based on our weaknesses, but we will not do so in a way that communicates that substance itself is somehow evil and wrong for all believers. True believers, regardless of their background, come to embrace this gospel freedom and will not be among those who ultimately walk away.
There he was, working hard at his second job, cheerfully selling wares on the street in spite of the chill winter night. I waited until the cluster of customers moved on and then approached *Thomas, who was one of my former English students and was now becoming a good friend.
“Mr. Thomas, how are you, brother? What’s new? How’s your situation? How’s your health? Everything good?”
“Mr. AW! How are you, teacher? Are you good? How’s your household? Everyone doing well? What’s the news?”
This is how a typical conversation begins among our Central Asian people group, with a barrage of respectful questions spoken enthusiastically while the other person is doing the same thing back to you. No one actually hears each and every question or responds to all of them directly, but it’s the cumulative show of honor and friendship that counts. Once this “outdo one another in showing honor” greeting is completed, you can actually begin speaking one at a time.
“How’s business tonight?” I asked.
“Not bad,” Thomas smiled, “With my work in the bazaar pretty slow right now, I need to be out here as much as I can. Diapers are expensive!”
Thomas and his wife had recently had a baby boy, after years of infertility came to an end when they were prayed over by one of his good friends, another missionary in our city.
“May your body be whole, my brother.” I responded, signalling to him that I appreciated the difficulty of his labors.
“Let’s get some chai!” Thomas said and jumped up from his stool.
“Don’t trouble yourself!” I responded, indirectly letting him know that I would indeed appreciate a hot and sugary cup of tea on this cold winter evening. As my coworkers can attest, it’s a rare day that I turn down an offer of our local chai – strong, black, and sweet, with just a hint of bergamot, cinnamon, and cardamom. Not as simple as European teas, not as aggressive as South Asian chais – just an expertly-balanced mix of subtle spices and caffeine.
“Pah! It’s no trouble at all. Sir! Two chais over here!” The chai boy nodded that he had received our order and got to work quickly pouring the scalding water, tea, and generous helpings of sugar into two small transparent glass cups. They were in our hands and burning our fingers in less than a minute.
“May your hands be blessed,” We said to the chai boy as he delivered our order. The chai steamed in the winter air and we began stirring the sugar in, waiting for the tea to cool down just enough to be sipped without scalding.
I knew my friend’s window for visiting was limited, so after a few minutes of general question, I got to the point of my visit.
“Mr. Thomas, you’ve recently shared with me and another fellow teacher in depth that you believe in Jesus.”
“Yes! I have believed for a while. I’ve told you about how I met that older British missionary many years ago in my travels to the countries east of here. I was a conman and a drunkard, but I really did learn a lot from his example and from the church he had there. Those things have stuck with me through the years. And in the past couple of years with my other dear foreign friend, God has answered our prayers for healing and now we have a son. No question about it. I’m not with Islam at all anymore. I’m a follower of Jesus.”
“Mr. Thomas, have you ever attended a church here where there are other believers like you?”
“A church? No, but I did years ago when I was out of the country. It was amazing! Are there churches here? I haven’t seen any.”
“Well,” I responded, “Not church buildings like you would have seen in that other country. But yes, there are a few small groups of believers who meet regularly to worship Jesus together. The real meaning of church is a group of believers, not a religious building.”
Thomas chewed on what I said.
“Do you have any family members or friends who are open to Jesus?”
“No, I have tried to share with them, but it’s just me and has been for a while. My wife might be somewhat more open now… You should bring your wife over sometime so we can have her share more with my wife!”
“We’d like that a lot. And we’ll be praying for your wife to be more open to Jesus. Keep sharing with her patiently and showing her that you are a new man because of Jesus. God willing, she will notice the change in you and want to know the source of it.”
We took some swigs of our chai and I thought about how to phrase my next words. Thomas’ friend had departed for the US and we wanted to be faithful now that we were the primary spiritual influence in his life.
“Mr. Thomas, it’s very important that no follower of Jesus follows him by themselves. God wants us each to be part of a spiritual family, a true church. I’ve been talking with my friends about your situation and we believe Jesus is giving you two very good options.”
Thomas sat up and raised his eyebrows inquisitively.
“We believe that Jesus would like you to either join a church… or to let us help you start one among your family and friends. You don’t have to answer now. You should probably take some time and pray about it. But whatever you decide, we want to help you obey Jesus by being part of a church.”
“I will pray,” Thomas replied. “I am so happy to hear this.”
Now it was my turn to raise my eyebrows. The usual response to the “church talk” was one of caution and suspicion. Many local believers balk at the idea of gathering with other locals out of concern for their own safety. Thomas seemed to be cut from a different cloth. It appeared his travels out east had had quite an impact.
After a few weeks, Thomas contacted us and asked if he could start attending the gathering of believers we had recently begun, in spite of the fact that he had never met those other believers before. He was tired of feeling alone in his faith and didn’t sense that any in his personal network were very open to the gospel, with the exception of maybe his wife. Thomas came the very next week, brought his son, and beamed with joy throughout the whole meeting.
Missionaries in our region have had to think long and hard about the problem of the church gathering. Decades of dictators and secret police have a powerful effect upon the populations they have terrorized. The warped culture that emerges is one of fear, distrust, suspicion, and deceit. Everyone is afraid everyone else is a spy. This makes gathering local believers into a group that can become a church a mightily complicated task. Implosion is the norm.
This has had the unfortunate effect of causing many missionaries to abandon the idea of gatherings made up of unrelated believers altogether. Instead, most have turned a decent principle, the household or oikos, into a hard and fast rule. The oikos principle states that we often see the gospel taking root in natural households in the book of Acts and that missiology since has confirmed that this dynamic continues among unreached people groups – that the gospel usually travels fastest along previously established relational lines and churches tend to be planted in households.
But description has become prescription. One way churches are planted has become the way to plant a church, even to the point where local believers will stay isolated for years because missionaries are opposed in principle to bringing them to group of non-related believers. Following Jesus while isolated and without a spiritual family (even while enduring persecution) becomes preferred to violating the oikos principle. This is done in the name of rapid reproducibility and in response to the very real persecution and distrust that is in the culture.
On the other hand, there are also local believers who become members of a composite group (made up of believers not naturally related to one another) who fail to ever tell their family and friends that they are believers. They stay mostly secret in their compartmentalized faith. This is not healthy. And it’s true, these composite groups almost always implode. The trust between believers that we expect to naturally develop is awfully slow to grow… and sometimes there really are spies.
And yet we cannot abandon the biblical vision of local churches that are not made up only of people who are already naturally like one another. The church is meant to display how the gospel overcomes natural barriers of family, culture, and ethnicity (Col 3:11). If we plant one church for the Hatfields and one church for the McCoys and stop there, how does that not simply reinforce their blood feud? Better (though harder) to have a church where Hatfields and McCoys worship together and visibly attest to the power of the gospel to break down dividing walls of hostility (Eph 2:13-22). Yes, oikos church planting is one natural way the church has taken root among people groups for 2,000 years. But the church must outgrow the oikos and bring reconciliation between opposing households if these churches are to become healthy and faithful. And we must not leave local believers as spiritual orphans in the name of methodology. Obeying the scriptures and gathering with other believers is worth it, even knowing the risks.
All of this context is why I shared with Thomas about the two very good options he had regarding church: join one or help us start one. In truth, these would be two options worth celebrating with new believers almost anywhere in the world. Join a church made up of those totally different from you and together become the household of God, to the amazement of the watching world. Or, work with godly mentors to start a church within the relationships God has already given you. Do any of our cities actually have an overabundance of churches? Isn’t there always room for one more church plant, especially with the evangelistic energy they bring? Start with your household, but by all means, pray for and work for the gospel to break out of your network as soon as possible, and to bring in those who do not naturally fit as part of your oikos. Yes, reach your household. But also reach your enemies.
Not every new believer will be able to start a church in their oikos. The Spirit gives different gifts. Missiology tends to miss this point. But also, not every new believer will be willing to join a church where they trust no one when they have a past involving trauma and betrayal. How can we plant churches that patiently walk with all of them so that they can obey the scriptures and gather with others? I have encouraged my current teammates to share these two options with their newly believing friends, knowing that as a team we share the vision of developing multi-household and multi-ethnic churches. So whether we start with a household and deal with the trust issues on a slower track or whether take the bull by the horns and plant a composite group right away, our aim is to end up in the same place – a biblically faithful church that visibly displays the gospel.
Back to Thomas – he joined our composite church plant, which then went on to implode six months later. One of our leaders-in-training proved to be some kind of a wolf in sheep’s clothing and caused a world of confusion and mayhem. Thomas sadly sided with the wolf for a season. The rebound has been difficult for many of the new believers in that group, but there are signs that Thomas is still mostly on a good track. He has pursued some reconciliation and his wife has even come to faith in the season since the implosion. The church plant, which he sometimes visits, still continues.
Church planting in Central Asia is very messy and we’re learning to take the long view. There are times when I regret introducing Thomas to this group. What would have happened if he had picked the other option? But at the end of the day we walk in the light we have in a given situation. Even if we walk in biblical principles with a good conscience, in the mysterious sovereignty of God things can implode and even fail. And in spite of the eventual difficulties, Thomas’ presence in this diverse group was one of the factors that led to others hearing the gospel for the first time.
The day will come, sooner or later, when Central Asia will once again be full of followers of Jesus. Planting churches is the only way to get there. I am grateful for two very good options Jesus gives us for how to start.
Most Western cultures tend to be time-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their time, by prioritizing the clock. Most Eastern cultures tend to be event-oriented. This means they respect others by respecting their participation, by prioritizing their access the key parts of an event.
Both cultures value respecting others. It’s the how in respecting others that often results in a culture clash.
Think of a typical church small group in a university city. This group meets once a week for fellowship, bible study, and prayer. Let’s say our hypothetical group’s participants are made up of both Westerners and those from the global East, perhaps Indian grad students and business professionals.
All of the members of this small group have agreed to a start and end time for their meetings, 7:00-9:00 p.m., and they have consensus as to the parts of the gathering: fellowship, study, and prayer.
The evening for the group’s meeting arrives and some of the participants are on time. However, after 5-10 minutes, the Westerners feel the urge to begin the meeting. This doesn’t sit well with the Easterners, because several members of the group have not arrived yet. They feel like it would be very unloving to start the meeting without all the participants present. The Westerners for their part want to start because they feel it would be very unloving to not end on time. There are other things scheduled after the meeting, including the bed times of small children!
The meeting gets started eventually and the discussion goes longer than expected. Because it’s almost 9:00, the Westerners suggest that they skip the prayer portion of the event. After all, they want to honor everyone’s time by finishing on time and keeping their word. But the Easterners once again protest. It’s more honoring to make sure the group gets to pray together and fulfill all the key elements of this event, no matter how late it goes!
This is a classic collision of time-orientation vs. event-orientation, West vs. East.
You can see how different understandings of respect could lead to some uncomfortable disagreements in a group like this. But things could get even worse if any members of the group begin to elevate these cultural preferences to become matters of godliness. A Western brother might say that it’s more godly to manage time responsibility – redeem the time and keep your word, that’s what Christians should do, regardless of culture. An Eastern brother might differ that it’s more godly to prioritize people over schedules – love for others is how the world will know we are Jesus’ people, not by our rigidly managed schedules. And why do you let the clock cause you to neglect the great duty of prayer?
How do you get past this kind of impasse? On a practical level, it’s helpful if there are participants who can point out the cultural dynamics that are going on. Being aware of these differing cultural values of time-orientation and event-orientation help keep the conflict at an appropriate level – one of preference and not one of faithfulness. Pulling back the veil on the cultural elements at play helps to defuse the conversation, as many from each respective culture simply may have never heard before that there are others who approach respecting others in these different ways. It’s helpful to frame it as more like a personality difference and less like an issue of disobedience. This can inject some grace and readiness to listen into the conversation.
It’s also key to focus on the common and biblical virtue, respecting and loving others, that both groups are pursuing. They are working for the same biblical principle, but are applying it differently. This means the conflict falls in the realm of Romans 14-type issues. “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom 14:6 ESV). In Romans 14, the same biblical principle of honoring the Lord and giving him thanks can be applied either by eating or by abstaining from eating. There’s a spectrum of faithful applications of this principle. This is also true of the other issue Paul raises in this chapter, honoring certain days over others.
Some biblical principles are given along with a narrower prescribed range of biblical applications, such as the Lord’s Supper. But many, many biblical principles are given to us with a broader range of possible applications. When we assume our own personal or cultural applications are the same as the biblical principle (sometimes we even do this in the name of fighting relativity), we tend to trample on Christian liberty and fight about the wrong things. We can divide the body of Christ over silly things like food, just like Paul warns about. Instead, we can join Paul in asking, “Will you, for the sake of honoring the clock, destroy the one for whom Christ died?”
If the conflict has made it this far, recognizing the cultural clash going on and identifying how the biblical principle and possible applications relate, they still have some work to do. How should the group actually proceed given these seemingly-exclusive preferences? Context plays an important part in making a game plan at this point.
Is one group the overwhelming majority of the attendees? Then it’s likely that the small minority should, for the sake of love, shift their cultural preferences to that of the majority. Is one group more able to shift culturally, more able to see both sides of the issue? Perhaps the younger members of the group would be more able to forgo their cultural preferences whereas the older members would risk violating their consciences. If so, the younger may be called on to make that shift for the sake of the others. Perhaps there is a way that both groups can prefer one another and meet in the middle with an intentional compromise. Or, perhaps different gatherings can prioritize the culture of the respective groups. This could even become fun: “First and third week of the month, we’re meeting Western style, second and third, it’s Eastern all the way! Prepare accordingly.”
Whatever practical solution our hypothetical small group decides upon, it’s likely that they will have grown simply by getting greater clarity on these differences and by working for an intentional solution. Too often cultural conflicts occur without the participants understanding what’s actually going on. Often, the majority just continues to do things its way and the minority feels like they weren’t heard or understood. Or, these conflicts get mislabeled as black and white issues of faithfulness when they were really just grey issues of preference.
These kinds of conflicts actually represent an important opportunity for growth and love – one which can witness powerfully to an unbelieving world with its merely skin-deep diversity. If you are a Westerner, you can learn to honor your Eastern friends by prioritizing everyone’s participation and by letting go of hard start and end times as possible. Show your Eastern friends that they are more important to you than the clock is. If you’re an Easterner, you can learn to honor your Western friends by showing them you value their time and their plans. Show them that you love them by helping them keep their commitments. How can you learn how to actually do this with real people? By asking questions about these preferences and by being a good listener. Simple spiritual friendship goes an awfully long way toward overcoming cultural differences.
These are, of course, broad strokes and exceptions always exist to these patterns. Yet in an increasingly globalized world, the church would be helped to be more aware of this very common culture clash. Let us work for diverse biblical cultures within our churches where we are time-oriented and/or event-oriented with gospel intentionality.
*If you want to learn more about time-orientation vs. event-orientation, Sarah Lanier’s book, Foreign to Familiar, is a great place to start.
With the deaths of the apostles (apostoloi, or envoys), who had been the chief conveyors of Jesus’s message, the role of the bishop grew; and by the beginning of the second century we find him being treated in a more exalted manner – as a successor to the dead apostles and symbol of unity for the local congregation – but still the appointee of his congregation. As its symbol of he was duty-bound to consult his congregation in all important matters. “From the beginning of my episcopacy,” the aristocratic Cyprian of Carthage, monumental bishop of third-century Africa, confided to his clergy, “I made up my mind to do nothing on my own private opinion, without your advice and without the consent of the people.”
By the end of Augustine’s life, such consultation was becoming the exception. Democracy depends on a well-informed electorate; and bishops could no longer rely on the opinion of their flocks – increasingly, uninformed and harried illiterates – nor, in all likelihood, were they averse to seeing their own power grow at the expense of the people. In many districts, they were already the sole authority left, the last vestige of Roman law and order. They began to appoint one another; and thus was born – five centuries after the death of Jesus – the self-perpetuating hierarchy that rules the Catholic church to this day.
Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, pp. 61-62
Darius* and I were meeting in a cafe to conduct an informal baptism interview. Leaning on things I had learned as a young pastor in the US, I was asking questions to gauge his understanding of the gospel and of baptism, looking for clear evidence of repentance and life change, and also casting a vision for local church commitment – the absence of which is the kryptonite of church planting among our people group.
“Darius, you know that many who come to faith among your people refuse to gather with other believers. They refuse to commit to a church body and instead try to follow Jesus on their own. Because of this choice they can never become mature believers and the church cannot be built up and multiply here. It’s a tragic thing.”
“Yes,” Darius nodded.
I continued, “When you get baptized you are not only proclaiming your commitment to Jesus, but you are also proclaiming your commitment to his people, the Church, Christ’s bride.”
Darius continued nodding in affirmation.
“Darius, I know there are many reasons why other local believers are afraid to gather with others to worship Jesus and to be the church… but in order to obey Jesus, we must be committed to do this, no matter what. If you say you are ready to get baptized, are you also ready to commit to gathering with a body of believers for the rest of your life, even if things get bad?”
Darius looked at me, a little puzzled.
Then he asked, “Why would I stop gathering with other believers? It’s because of the church that I became convinced that the message of the gospel must be true. When I saw your lives, how different all of you are, when I saw your relationships with one another (and here he cycled through the names of our small church plant of locals and foreigners), that’s when I knew the gospel was true.”
Darius was speaking as if what he was saying was the most obvious thing in the world, seemingly unaware of just how rare this stand was among local believers.
“I am a believer because of the church. So of course, I will gather with a church for the rest of my life, no matter what happens.”
There it was, Darius had taken his stand. I wanted to ask him to say it again, or at least to stand up and give him a big bear hug. After three years of pleading with local believing friends to gather with others, and mostly failing to convince them to actually do so, here for the first time was a brother who simply knew it deep down in his spiritual bones – to be a believer means to not forsake the assembly. Here was evidence that if exposed to a gathering of the saints early on, a local could actually have the importance of church as part of his new-believer DNA. Here was a fulfillment of the Bible’s promises about the power of The Church Observed. It was like stumbling onto water while traveling through the desert. It was wonderful.
We were departing soon for the US, and we were asked to plan to move to a new city after our return. But our last time worshiping with Darius and the other believers included a kiddie pool in a kitchen. Darius confessed his faith in Jesus and in the presence of witnesses went under the water and came back out again, his spiritual death and life in Christ now made visible through the waters of baptism.
To this day Darius has kept his commitment to Jesus and also to his bride, the church. May the Lord raise up an army like him.