I continue to learn just how important self-awareness is in the effort to do good missiology and contextualization. In order to understand my target culture and know how to apply the gospel to it, I am deeply handicapped if I do not understand my own preferences and my own culture. The danger of confusing personal and cultural preferences for biblical principles and commands lurks ever hidden under the surface – not unlike the sea mines in the Bosphoros that prevented the allies from taking Constantinople in WWI. In this vein, I have been greatly helped by this article by Tim Keller that addresses church size dynamics.
Every church has a culture that goes with its size and which must be accepted. Most people tend to prefer a certain size culture, and unfortunately, many give their favorite size culture a moral status and treat other size categories as spiritually and morally inferior. They may insist that the only biblical way to do church is to practice a certain size culture despite the fact that the congregation they attend is much too big or too small to fit that culture.
My mistake as a former house-church-only advocate was this very thing, confusing a house church size as being a more biblical choice. Small was holier than big. Simple was holier than complex. Just as good missionaries need to constantly remind themselves that many strange things in their new culture are “not wrong, just different,” so Christians must remind themselves of this same truth when interacting with churches of different sizes. The key takeaway is not just that churches of different sizes usually have different cultures, but rather that they inescapably have different cultures. To refuse to let the culture change because of some personal size preference is to do damage to the church and to impede its healthy growth, like new grandparents insisting that Christmas must always look the same even though their grown children now have their own children plus another other set of in-laws that need to be honored.
This article is also full of specific wisdom to help leaders when their churches are passing from one size culture to another. Since many of the churches that are planted in Central Asia will exist in the house church to small church range, I am helped to be aware of how to proactively lead or help the local leaders anticipate what kind of shepherding is needed to make this transition.
If it opts to grow out of the house-church size into a small church, it needs to prepare its people to do this by acknowledging the losses of intimacy, spontaneity, and informality and agreeing to bear these as a cost of mission, of opening its ranks to new people. This has to be a consensus group decision, to honor the dynamics of the house church even as it opts to change those dynamics.
I’m currently on a trip to my previous city and engaged in multiple days of back-to-back visiting. So I will likely be writing a bit less this week and instead posting a few articles that I have found very influential over the years.
This first one addresses the very relevant question of how missionaries can achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation. Should they make this kind of transformation a direct focus of their work or should they only focus on the “spiritual” work and trust that the transformation will follow in due time? In this article, John Piper comments on the research of J. Dudley Woodberry. Woodberry’s stunning thesis in his project, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy” is to show that the historic presence of conversionary protestants is the most important variable in whether a society has developed a free and democratic society or not. When these conversionary protestants focused primarily on preaching the gospel and planting churches, significant social change was the consistent result. Piper says,
The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.
I live and work in a part of the world where we have many acute social needs. There are a thousand good causes I could devote my time to and if I did this many people would find real and meaningful help. So why do I spend so much time studying language and focusing on sharing the gospel, discipling believers, and ultimately, planting churches? How can I do this work in good conscience when my place of service is full of honor killings, FGM, refugees, genocide-related trauma, domestic violence, unemployment, human trafficking, and dozens of other issues that desperately require reform?
This article and the accompanying research help provide data that accompany the conviction that it is not unfaithful to focus on church planting in such a context. It is in fact the truest path toward true and lasting reform.
For seven years we did outreach to Muslim refugees in our city in the US. At one stage, two of my Iranian friends were interested in pursuing membership at our church. One of them, *Saul, had come to faith in Iran and had even spent time in prison for being a house church leader-in-training. The other, *Reza, was a new believer, having come to faith after a couple years in the US. The process of pursuing church membership with them – in our diverse but still majority-American Baptist church – was a rocky one. Interview after interview was canceled by these Iranian brothers. Yes, there were theological questions that we needed to work through, and those discussions sometimes got pretty intense (I’m not angry, I’m just Iranian!), but there were also some hidden cultural roadblocks that also emerged. Turns out it was not just our doctrine that was causing concern, but some of our systems and forms.
“Hey brother, can you help me understand why Saul keeps canceling his membership interview?” I asked.
“Well, you know how we grew up in a police state, right?” My friend Reza responded.
“This upbringing has affected us in some deep ways,” Reza continued.
“Well, we are (especially Saul) having a hard time with the idea of a membership interview. We don’t like interviews. They make us really anxious.”
I furrowed my brow, “Why exactly do interviews make you anxious?”
Reza looked at me like I should have known the answer to that question. “An interview is what the secret police does to you. They call you in to an interview. Then you get tortured. Then you go to jail. We have baggage with that term and with that kind of meeting. It happened to my dad a number of times. It happened to Saul. Does that make sense?”
I nodded, processing this new info. “So if we call it something else…”
Reza jumped in, “Call it anything else! Just for Iranians, don’t call it an interview (said with a shiver). Set it up in a different kind of way also… Do you think that would be possible?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’ll have to ask the elders, but I think we could find something else that could work. Would you guys be comfortable if we asked the same kinds of questions, but in the context of a meal in a home?”
“Yes!” said Reza, “That would be perfect. And there’s one other thing… Saul and I won’t sign our names on the membership covenant.”
Again the look that implied I should be smart enough to figure this one out. “The secret police always make you sign a confession statement, even if you didn’t do what they accuse you of. We Iranians tend to be allergic to signing things. We’ve learned our signature can often be used against us.”
“But, brother, we’re not in Iran anymore. The government here doesn’t care if your signature is on a membership list. And what else could be done to seal your commitment other than signing? I’m not sure there’s an alternative. Membership requires that you promise to be committed in a serious way to this spiritual family.”
“We’ll more readily raise our right hand and swear orally. That feels safer to us. We really don’t like signing things. I know it might not make sense to you…”
“Well, OK, I can ask the elders about these tweaks to the process and let you know. Honestly, I never thought about these things being an issue or a roadblock in you guys becoming members.”
“I appreciate it, brother Workman.”
I took these unique questions about the membership process to the elders of the church. After discussing it, they indeed decided that these forms (a meal and orally swearing) could serve as acceptable substitutes for the normal interview and covenant signing. I was really encouraged by this outcome. While I wouldn’t have had these categories clear at that time, what the elders had done was to hold onto their biblical principles of church membership, while giving some wiggle room in the cultural expressions of that process. It might seem like a small thing, but a vibrant, growing church has to lean heavily on agreed upon and steady processes. Changing them can be costly, and can’t always fit with the practical needs of a busy church body. And yet sometimes tweaking things like church processes so that they’re less culturally difficult can make a big difference in practically loving believers from other cultures. It may not seem glamorous, but it can feel an awful lot like honor and kindness if you are on the receiving end.
Reza met us half-way. He surprised me by signing the covenant after we in turn had set up a membership meal. Saul never made it through the process. He wasn’t able to overcome his skepticism toward healthy church accountability nor the pride that he carried at having gone to prison for Jesus. Persecution, in his case, ended up planting poisonous self-righteousness in his heart. These things and the distractions of life in America gradually pulled him out of fellowship with us. But Reza shared his testimony publicly and joyfully went under the water, events which would lead to the salvation of one the pastors’ sons. “Reza tried all these religions like Islam, Communism, and Hinduism and found them all empty, eventually finding the truth in Jesus. So what am I waiting for?”
Reza’s baptism would also lead to his father cutting off his rent money. So once again, the church made a timely exception and allowed him to move into the intern house. He went on to lead others to faith, include a man who is now a deacon at that same church.
For churches who are reaching out cross-culturally to immigrants, refugees, or international students, don’t be surprised if your expressions of biblical principles cause some roadblocks, not to mention the offense caused by the gospel itself. But make sure you keep in mind the crucial difference between principles and expressions. We can’t change our principles – but expressions? There’s often more room for adjusting these than we might expect, accustomed as we are to the way things are done around here. Even when changing certain expressions is costly, it may be one very important way in which you can serve those coming to faith from other cultures.
And with the current crises facing the Western Church, any movement toward more skillfully serving and welcoming in those from other cultures is movement in the right direction.
Last week a local believer surprised us, asking to spend a couple nights with us as he waited for his university dorm to open. We were heading into a needed slower weekend after a very busy week. So we had to take a minute to wrestle with whether our family could absorb the good cost of overnight hosting in the local fashion – where chai and conversation often last until well after midnight. In the end, my wife and I decided it would be the right kind of sacrificial call to make. We’ve learned the importance of making these kinds of calls together, even though it’s a little weird in local culture for me to tell a friend I’ll call him back rather than just immediately extending gushing invitations of welcome. But ministry can be quite costly to family, and unity between spouses is essential for navigating when and how to absorb those costs.
This particular young man has been a fun example of providence for me. Years ago I met him in a bookshop in our previous city. He shared with me that he and some of his high school buddies ran a philosophy discussion group in their very conservative Islamic city. I had felt keenly that this was the kind of group I should try to visit, but I had never followed up on the opportunity. Nevertheless, his number remained in my phone and his unique name in my mind. A few years later we had returned from six months in the US and had moved to a different city. At our first visit to the international church here, who should walk up to me at the end of the service? This very same young man – now a professing follower of Jesus. I don’t know how, but I knew I would run into you again, I thought to myself.
During my friend’s stay with us we talked a lot about his work with local radio stations – including our only local Christian radio station. He shared with me how our newly completed audio bible in the local language was recorded at their studio. This project is worthy of celebration since so many of the women in our adopted country are illiterate and much of the general population is only functionally literate – meaning they will never read a book for fun or personal interest. Having the whole Bible now freely available via radio or a free smartphone app means access to the word of God just increased exponentially.
“You know what really surprised me?” my friend said to me. “The project was funded by churches in Africa. How can that be?”
I was thrilled to learn about this aspect of the project. How amazing that African churches have just funded an audio bible for my Central Asian Muslim people group! I’ve never heard about this direction of partnership for the work here before, but it seems like an exciting preview of things to come. I proceeded to explain to my friend about the massive Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa and how I have heard it is set to become a major force and sending base for global missions. This was brand new information for my friend and he leaned in as I explained how the Church in the global south is in many ways the future center of global Christianity. The Church in the West may be declining or plateauing, but God is raising up churches all around the world to fill the gap.
In our previous city we partnered closely with a Mexican family. Their unique strengths were key to our fledgling church plant getting up and off the ground. We were able to lean on them for the areas of working in the local culture where we as Westerners were weaker – and vice versa. When that term came to an end I took a couple seminary classes while in the US. In both of my classes was a student from the very same country in Melanesia where I had grown up. Turns out he had been discipled by a pastor my own dad had discipled before he passed away. Now this man had been sent to get further seminary-level training. His dream is to return and start the first seminary in the country in order to train future pastors and missionaries. I watch with gratitude on social media as Melanesian guys I played volleyball with at Easter Camp are already going out and planting churches locally and even ministering in neighboring nations. Back here in our Central Asian context, it’s not uncommon to hear of cross-cultural workers from Asia and Latin America who have come to also see the Church take root here.
What an exciting time to be a part of global missions. Many countries and people groups that used to receive missionary church planters and Bible translators are now organizing to themselves send workers to the unreached people groups of the world. It’s often messy. We learned some hard lessons about how difficult it can be to have to contextualize to two foreign cultures at once, trying to keep in mind both local Central Asian and partner Hispanic culture. I can only imagine the epic culture clash if someday my Melanesian friends come as workers to Central Asia. “My grandpa was a cannibal” meets “My grandpa was a terrorist.” Sparks will certainly fly at times. And yet the advantages far outweigh the costs. The picture alone which is painted for our local friends is spiritually powerful. I relished every opportunity I had to point to our former partners’ ethnicity and our ethnicity and the locals’ ethnicities, holding up the supra-cultural power of the gospel for every people group of the world. “They’re Mexican, we’re American, you’re Central Asian. Look at the power of Jesus to save us and make us into a new people!”
I don’t know yet which churches from which African country funded our local audio Bible. But I praise God for them. Only the proud feel threatened when new regions of the world get involved in the missionary task. Many of us simply rejoice. Blessed reinforcements with unique strengths and needed experience! The promises of God are coming true. If all the unreached people groups of the world are to be saturated with healthy churches, it will have to be through a combined effort of the global church sending workers to the areas of greatest need. No longer mainly the West to the rest. Instead, all nations to all nations.
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.