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Wikipedia strongly espouses verifiability and a neutral point of view, but critics of Wikipedia accuse it of “systemic bias and inconsistencies”. They say “favoring consensus over credentials gives undue weight to popular culture” in its editorial processes.
From a vantage point of a missionary, I see an important similarity here to the argument that laity, those lacking credentials from a church denomination or seminary, have no business leading a church plant or Missional community. The argument goes like this: “Those untrained leaders could lead their people into heresy or false doctrine.” That was a major concern of the early church.
If reliability and accuracy are really the issue, and not the status of “experts,” then it’s worth noting that “an investigation in Nature (scientific journal) found that the science articles they compared came close to the level of accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”.” In this Nature article, Alex Bateman and Darren W. Logan write:
“Ten years ago, it would have been inconceivable that a free collaborative website, written and maintained by volunteers, would dominate the global provision of knowledge.”
So then, should an “untrained” leader draw together a group of Christ’s followers and attempt to demonstrate and declare the gospel of Jesus by making disciples from within their specific people group, their neighborhood, workplace, or school? Could such a group represent an authentic church gathering?
For centuries leadership of churches has been left to “experts”, those with credentials, degrees, and funny hats. Concern for this issue was pronounced during the recent post-colonial period, after WWII, when newly independent nations opened the opportunity for multiplied thousands of new independent churches which resulted in the greatest expansion of christianity in history, especially the Global South (see Inter-Varsity article). Many attempts to train the multitudes of new church leaders in Africa and China, through programs based mostly in the West, such as TEE (Theological Education by Extension), could not keep up the pace of church growth at the end of the 20th century. At issue: what would come of these “younger” churches? Would they slip into heresy and error?
Perhaps a little humility is required as we respond to these questions. The church in the West has not been without error, despite her theological “maturity.” The early church had error, the Medieval church had error, and the Protestant church has had error. Some error is difficult to perceive from a purely Western mindset. What could be wrong with promoting individual choices for Christ, reducing the gospel message to “three steps” or “four laws”? Well, getting “saved” for heaven is not the kingdom message Jesus preached. And it’s not the gospel message Paul preached. Salvation is much more comprehensive, and not just a private decision. The West has exported this erroneous gospel message through the modern missionary enterprise for more than a century.
Examining the laundry list of error in Western theology would require several other posts, so let’s just humble ourselves long enough to accept our brothers and sisters in the now Majority church of the Global South, not as immature “younger” churches, but as full fledged churches.
Like the world of Wikipedia, we now live in a new, “flat” and globalized world (See Thomas Friedman’s popular book, ‘The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century’), where information, correction of error and validation of facts now spread instantaneously around the world. Whether we are ready or not, it is time to consider our ways, to search the Scriptures for understanding the way to reach our new world.
Jesus did not make it complicated and neither should we. It is simple to experience community with those you already have an affinity, a similar culture. People who already share interest and time together are more likely to worship together and work together on a mission of Kingdom expansion.
This is the approach to missions and church planting in India put forth in the 1930s by Donald McGavran, the late missionary statesman who coined “Homogenous Unit Principle“, groups which can be a culture or language, a tribe or caste, a clan or geographical unit. McGavran was studied church growth, proposing a church which is not sending mission so much as it is itself sent. With so many different cultures in India, McGavran saw the need to encourage many cultural expressions of church. The different people groups should not be forced into one church cultural mold, like your neighborhood mega-church. Could it be that McGavran’s approach would also now be appropriate for churches in the Western world?
Lesslie Newbigin, another great missionary statesman, spent over 30 years living as a missionary working with the Church of South India. When he returned to England, Newbigin noticed something: the Western world had become as pluralistic as India, with new “faith” in materialism. (See Newbigin’s book: The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society.) The West, especially Europe with the USA not far behind, had already lost much of its “Christian” heritage. Once vital Church structures in England are now nightclubs with names like “Ministry of Sin.” Newbigin saw the need to not only continue to send missionaries around the world, but also to receive missionaries to re-evangelize the post-Christian West. He suggested the formation and structure of Western churches require a new reformation in order to reach our Western society with the gospel. He and many of the leaders in world missions today, contend that the Church in the West must again become primarily a missions station sponsoring Missional communities among the people groups in our cities. The Anglican Church is championing “Fresh Expressions” of church formation for the communities in which it has been established for many hundreds of years.
What am I proposing? Three things:
- First, I propose we learn humility, perhaps unlike or feeble attempts to humble ourselves in religious services, temporarily weeping at the altar and then returning to our comfortable lives behind our TVs, in our over-sized houses, and compressed lifestyles. We must humble ourselves, relinquishing our supposed rights to power, privilege, and too often prestige.
- Second, like Wikipedia, we should learn to trust every believer to gain access, participate, and contribute to theological conversations. We should trust those with a desire to be a witness to their community.
- Third, we should flatten our church hierarchies, eliminate the exclusivity of church “membership”, and commission believers to “go” into their world to plant simple church communities.
Imagine if Jesus could once again become the main focus of conversations and life in your neighborhood, your workplace, and on a your campus, perhaps it would also be possible for the message and works of Jesus to fill an entire city. No, I am not suggesting we merely “unite” churches (which tend to be organized in a competitive business model anyway). Unity is not something we create, it is something the apostle Paul exhorts us to “preserve”.
This vision for a new church-planting movement in our neighborhoods could only be realized if everyday believers, people like you and me, choose to go on mission in our sphere of influence, planting the church where you are through non-formal gatherings in homes, workplaces, and campus dorms. Of course, those with the status as “experts” may resist this missional movement for various reasons. But I am confident that the leaders whose hearts belong to Jesus will cheer ANY effort to reach our world with the good news.
The hard part is this: We have to renew our thinking, repent of our fixed cultural habits, and begin to walk worthy of this calling. Church is not just something you attend…it’s something you are. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is within you; that’s true of every believer. The good news is within us.
We need break our individualistic mindset in order to see our world is not just one big community of individuals. It is hundreds of people groups, small communities put together to make up your city.
So I am proposing ‘simple churches’ or missional communities to be formed by two or more believers among these people groups. Missional communities are incarnational in that they arise out of and focus on the communities they desire to reach. Imagine multitudes of new small groups of believers in Chicago, LA, and New York, and in university campuses, businesses and suburbs in your area… Leaders need to find courage to once again be the church and release a new generation of churches in their most localized and organic form. This is what I propose: Form simple churches that are “Wiki-Missional.”
Do you need to find a “happy optimum” between push and pull of being a part of your home church and being your own distinctive person with a calling and experience in your wider community? Does your work or school life look like a mission field to you? Perhaps you have a desire to start a bible study, prayer group, or plant a simple church in your community? Pursuing that desire will likely require that you will have to say “no” to appeals to volunteer in your local church.
Does your hope for your own community, your work, school, and neighborhood, make you feel like that your concern is in opposition to the needs of your local church?
This is the tension many of us are experiencing today. Why? While some mega-churches are still serving the needs of our culture attracting large numbers of evangelicals to a market-based church program, the attractional model of church is no longer effective in our growing post-christian culture. To put it simply: It’s a great time to be THE church, but it is not a good time to be A church.
This presents a tremendous personal challenge to us, and especially to pastors. Many will simply not understand your desire to engage your world and network beyond the local church. Some may find self-esteem and safety within the local church. Some will already find acceptance and significance within the church and therefore not have a strong sense of need to extend their relational group. The more successful and “tight” the church group, the less likely it is that some would sense any need to extend their relationships.
Those of us who reach beyond our church communities are in a dynamic tension called Optimal Distinctiveness. Optimal Distinctiveness is the desire to be identified within a group and distinguish oneself from the group. This is the dynamic tension, this shifting identity, distinguishing oneself from the local church group, is part of the process of a new missional spirit in a post-Christian world. This is a spirit of collaboration.
If you are experiencing this dynamic tension, you need to learn the spirit of collaboration. You must be able to balance your identity within the context of collaboration, working with other groups and ministries outside the local church. To explain, let me share a bit of my own journey.
For 24 years, I have been serving with Youth With A Mission. I have worked with and among many church groups, mission agencies, and student organizations in over 30 nations. All the while I have extended the “fame” of my own spiritual father, my pastor, George Isley. He died a few years ago, but he continues to be my model of pastoral ministries. Over the years, I have come to realize a significant part of my identity was shaped in that local church and with that pastor. Meanwhile I have also found a significant part of my identity in the extended inter-group ministries I founded with Youth With A Mission, the Student Mobilization Centre of the University of the Nations. Though it was often a challenge for me to find the right approach to ministries outside the local church, the spiritual identity of a humble servant-leader modeled by George Isley continues to be my standard. To sum up, I have not followed the model of the popular itinerant preacher with products to sell and a slick appeal for an offering. The spirit of collaboration is not self-serving; it develops trusting personal relationships, freely giving, serving, and loving in the Spirit of Jesus.
As faithful believer in Jesus Christ, our ultimate responsibility and loyalty is to the Great Commission and our Servant King Jesus. We must continue to respect the amazing work that God has done and is doing through our local churches and pastoral leaders. However, our commitment and loyalty to Jesus and his mission must be greater than our commitment and loyalty to our own denomination, local church, and even our pastors. Reaching out in the spirit of collaboration is not a disloyalty to the local church; it is a greater commitment to THE global church.
You could appeal to your pastor for “permission.” Though it is difficult, you could also appeal to your pastor’s own human need to extend relationship beyond the boundaries of the local church. Your appeal to your pastor will reveal something to you; it will reveal your own search for personal balance.
The challenge will come when you are expected to continue to work in your local church and perhaps meet your pastor’s expectations. I want to leave you with a few recommendations:
1. I recommend that you clarify your identity, the identity God has shaped in your life as a committed member of your local church.
2. I also recommend that you take it slow. If you change too fast and too much, you may find yourself ostracized or excommunicated from your home church.
This is the topic of the next several posts. Let me know you are reading and post your questions, suggestions, and testimonies.