108. Five Transitions to Participate as Senders in God’s Global Mission

Move from where you are to where you want to be

Downloads: powerpoint, handout

In my role of coaching churches to do missions well, five transitions have proven effective for churches to make an impact as missionary sending churches.

From Missionary to Missions

  • Rather than supporting missionaries who have a mission, own the mission so that you can be partners with the missionary. Having a common passion is the best way to care for the missionary since it validates their calling.
  • What is the response of a church when a missionary retires? Is it, “What do we do with the money?” (missionary focus) or “How do we carry on the ministry?” (mission focus)
  • A missions orientation helps the church discover who and what to support. When someone comes up with a missions idea or a young person wants to be supported for a short term missions trip ask, “Is this your idea, or is it a mission vision of the church? Find 5 others who are also passionate about this and are willing to form a team for this initiative.”

From Information to Motivation

  • Traditionally mission committees focus on informing the church about missionaries. However, we live in an age of excess information. The only information absorbed is that which is immediately relevant.
  • A better emphasis is to motivate the church by involving them in a decision making process.
  • Rather than presenting one missions project for people to support, provide three. Then get people to vote on which one will make the greatest impact for God’s global mission and make that one your project.

From Passive receptor to Intentional mentor

  • People often doubt themselves and are unwilling to put themselves forward. Appoint respected believers in the church to identify those who may be called into missions and ask, “What is God’s call on your life?  Have you thought about it?  Do you think God may have a plan for you to work in missions?” That can change the direction of someone’s life.
  • One church I coached was a university church with high turnover of students. They came up with the idea of using the four years as a time to mentor people into discovering God’s call.  They did not wait for students to approach them, but initiated the conversation when students began attending.

From Cooperation to Identifying passion

  • Church leadership often thinks that their role is to decide what to do, cast a vision and then get people to cooperate with their plan.
  • Instead,
    • Pray that God would speak to people. 
    • Assume that God’s Spirit is working in people’s lives.
    • Identify and support the passion that God has given them. 
    • Ask: Where do people already have a passion for missions? Where are they already invested? 
    • Celebrate and support that passion. Such people are already motivated.
  • One church used their map of the world in a unique way. Sticky notes were provided for people to put on the map with their name to show either where they had been, or where they had a missions interest. Conversations began and common concerns were identified.

From Supporting to Investing

  • The traditional way of support raising is VERY intimidating. Nobody wants to do it and it can be an overwhelming burden. We are called to bear each other burdens.
  • If the church is already investing in the mission (transition #1), then partnering means taking on the whole burden with the goer, even to the point of raising funds for the goer. 
  • For example, ask the person going into missions to find 3 other people in the church to become a team for the mission. Together they meet, plan and act as if they were all going out on mission. With that perspective, working together with the missionary they can initiate prayer and financial support for the mission.  That is real investment.

101. Why I am a Baptist, but not an “Immersionist”

The “Immersionist” position is that any act of baptism that is not by the mode of immersion cannot be accepted as fulfillment of Jesus’ command to baptize.[1] Their rationale stems from a deep and admirable desire to radically obey[2] Jesus in all things and since the Greek baptizo literally means “immerse,” only that form is a true fulfillment of the command. In thinking through the issue I have come to the opposite conclusion and believe that highlighting the immersion mode diminishes the purpose and meaning of baptism because it emphasizes something peripheral to the command. Both symbolically and with a life-surrendering vow baptism is an act of “plunging … into the very name and life and character of the true God, who is Father, Son and Spirit.”[3] Radical obedience is the fulfillment of the latter vow, rather than a literal adherence to the form of the symbolism. It would be an unfortunate emphasis in our Fellowship churches if, by insisting on the outward appearance, we denied ourselves the fellowship of those who have also made that vow and embraced that symbolism, albeit by a mode that is less expressive than it could be.

Part of the argument provided by the Immersionists is that a transliteration (“baptize”) rather than a translation (“immerse”) of the word baptizo masks its true meaning and was employed in Bible translations for political reasons.[4] While political reasons stemming from church practice and the influence of the monarchy on religious authority were evident at the time of the early English Bible translations, these reasons need not be the sole motive behind the choice to transliterate. As a Bible translator into the Sindhi language,[5] I have often struggled with the benefit and impact of transliterating rather than translating. For example, in the Bible many names have meaning yet the function of identification usually overrides other aspects leading to a choice to transliterate. Barnabas means “Son of Encouragement,” which the original readers would have understood but this meaning is lost in the transliteration. Nonetheless, this loss is considered appropriate since the purpose of the name is primarily the identification of the person, just as a woman called “Joy” is only occasionally reminded of the significance of her name. Even closer to the issue at hand, when translating the New Testament into the Sindhi language for a Hindu audience, we discovered that some Hindu-background Christians were referring to baptism as a “holy bath.” For a time we seriously considered this as an option, but eventually settled on the transliteration “baptism” in order to facilitate a common Christian vocabulary and avoid potential divisions and arguments based on terminology.

Other than political expediency, the desire to avoid controversy and to encourage greater uniformity in Christian terminology, the most important reason for transliterating baptizo is theological. Baptism is far more than a symbol of immersion, its primary significance is as an ordinance. I am a Baptist because I am convinced of believer’s baptism and I value immersion as the most appropriate symbol to express the profound commitment of making a vow of total submission to God in Jesus’ name. The imagery of immersion is powerful and significant. It is an acted out metaphor of the internal reality and I would not want to lose that. But to deny expressions of baptism based solely on the mode raises the physical act to a level that I do not believe Jesus intended. His focus was on the heart not the outward appearance and in order to follow Christ I believe that we need to treat baptism the same way. The commands of Christ lead us to the heart of God, not to outward symbolic actions. A focus on immersion that causes us to reject those baptized by another mode is to move our attention from the purpose and meaning of baptism to a secondary and less important aspect.

In a recent paper Phil Webb[6] stated that “every change that God desires of us is relational and takes place in relationship,” which means that true obedience is done “by the spirit of the law rather than by the letter of the law.” The transliterated term “baptism” is more appropriate than the translated “immersion” because it points to the spirit of the command rather than the mode; “baptism” emphasizes the meaning and purpose of the ordinance and avoids placing too much emphasis upon that which is secondary.


[1] Belyea, G., Carter, G. & Frey, R. (2016) Conclusion in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 151). Brampton: Kainos: 151-152.

[2] Stairs, J. (2016). Why the Dripped Should be Dipped! in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 199-200). Brampton: Kainos: 191-204.

[3] Wright, T. (2011). Lent for Everyone: Matthew Year A (p. 149). London: SPCK.

[4] Frey, R. (2016). The Linguistic Evidence in Baptism Is … The Immersionist Perspective, Eds. G. Belyea, G. Carter & R. Frey (p. 22). Brampton: Kainos: 21-32.

[5] https://www.nbseminary.ca/church-health/cild/cild_sindhibible

[6] Webb, P. (2016) Unpublished.

79. Rethinking what we mean by “church”

Shortly after writing the Cross-cultural Impact article on Expressions of Church, I was intrigued to read the following comment by Peter Shaukat in a Catalyst Interchange posting:

I think there is a critical need in a larger theological/ missiological sense to rethink what we mean by church. There is a growing understanding that the church is much bigger than the local congregation, and that the church is a much more multi-faceted reality. Mission agencies and the business community should not be conceived as separate entities but as a part of the church. What we are seeing emerge are affinity groups—like the business community—that don’t capture the full orbed expression of the church, but neither does the local congregation at the corner of State and Main.1

Old Paradigm 2The implication is that local congregations,2 while being important expressions of the body of Christ, cannot claim exclusive rights as the only organization that fulfills the biblical description of church.  Moreover, missions agencies and other “parachurch” Christian organizations, while not calling themselves “church,” provide important and legitimate expressions of what it means to be the people of God.  This moves away from a traditional identification of “church” according to organizational criteria – constitutions, positions of leadership, buildings, etc. – to embrace a more functional view of “church” in which believers come together for Jesus’ kingdom purposes.

The trend of fluid connections to church

revolutionIn his book, Revolution,3 research guru George Barna observes that many young believers are experiencing “church” in a variety of non-traditional ways.  There appears to be a pendulum shift away from the denominational and church loyalties of a few decades ago. The local congregation is no longer the default expression of “church,” but one of a number of options. The evangelical ecumenical movement has not only resulted in believers moving comfortably from church to church, but also with many living as fulfilled believers outside of traditional church organizations. Loyalties are not directed towards a particular organization, but towards a group of friends with whom they relate on a spiritual level for worship, teaching or service.

they view relationships as their church

We have seen this trend within our own home. Our daughter and youngest son are involved in Young Life Canada, a parachurch organization focused on building relationships with teens who do not know Christ as well as mentoring young people into leadership positions.  At the same time, they take advantage of opportunities for significant relationships and worship experiences in other venues apart from Young Life.  The important point is that they view these relationships as their “church” and do not sense a need to commit to a traditional expression of church.

Why fluid connections are good – and bad

new paradigm 2This trend is both unsettling and liberating. It is liberating because many believers are looking for significant expressions of their faith beyond those commonly available through the local church.  An assumption among many loyal church goers is that true believers should belong to a traditional expression of church.  But if Shaukat and Barna are correct, that is not the only option. While many still gravitate to the traditional local church (our oldest son is an example), there are still others who find connections with believers in a variety of contexts that provide them with significance, discipleship and Christian service in God’s kingdom.  Even if someone does identify with a local congregation, they may be more committed to other ministries and organizations because of the perceived significance of what is being accomplished, and this limits their participation in their local church.

But it is unsettling because when those involved in “parachurch” ministries need to transition into other expressions of church that fit with their changing orientation and position in life, they may fail to do so.  Many of these organizations are focused on a particular age or interest group and this leads to temporary rather than permanent participation. The individual covenant to Christ continues, but the identification with a particular group can be short-lived. Once involvement in an organization is finished, they may not transition to another ministry or a local congregation.  Friends of our daughter are an example of this perspective: while both are committed followers of Christ, their sporadic visits to church services only reinforce their belief that this expression of church has little relevance to their lives.

Focus on significance, not obligation

second-orderI would suggest that a solution to the question of what determines a legitimate church is not to argue for one exclusive expression as the true church, nor to claim that the local congregation as commonly experienced has a privileged position, but to accept all expressions of church as part of what Jesus is doing to build up his followers.  That is, rather than promote one paradigm as supreme or primary, it would be better to recognize that no expression can be complete in itself.  We need each other. This perspective would lead to a level playing field in which membership in a local congregation is considered a second order concern in order for a person to be fulfilled as a follower of Christ.   Rather than promoted as an obligatory step in one’s faith journey, the step is taken because of the significance that particular connection can have for the believer.  This is not self-serving but, as Myers notes, a self-identifying quest that “comes from a deep desire to live beyond one’s self.”4 The criteria for choosing one’s level of involvement are based on strategic and significant purposes, rather than obligation. It is of secondary importance whether this “deep desire” is fulfilled through a local congregation or through another form of Christian ministry.

church-in-wordFurthermore, such an attitude can lead to partnerships by acknowledging how each expression of church complements rather than competes with the other.  For local churches, this would mean recognizing that they are not a complete expression of church in and of themselves, but that they play one role in building up the people of God. Dialogue with other ministries that leads to a refocus of priorities and a reallocation of resources may be required. By partnering with such ministries and celebrating church members’ participation in these ministries, local congregations can develop a synergy through which their purpose and vision is strengthened.  The local congregation need not become redundant or marginalized if it defines itself in a way that provides complementary spiritual support, identity and continuity for those who participate in other ministries.

Christian ministries operating apart from local congregation oversight can also embrace the reality that they are an expression of church, albeit limited. By taking this role seriously, they will look to local congregations and other organizations to help people develop a full expression of what it means to be a follower of Christ.

“Expressions of Church” and Missions

earthTim Lewis speaks of missions as the energy of the church “beyond the edges of the kingdom.”5 Such an enterprise demands the partnership of God’s people as they are involved in a variety of organizations, not just local congregations. Apart from a few notable exceptions, local congregations are not equipped to think strategically beyond their local context.  Validating other ministries as legitimate expressions of church and partnering with them provides local churches with a mission beyond that which they can accomplish alone.  The mission arm of the Fellowship, Fellowship International works with local congregations as that “expression of church” which participates in God’s global mission.

As someone deeply committed to participating in God’s global mission with a desire to see churches established, I find this concept of “expressions of church” particularly helpful when thinking about cross-cultural gospel impact.  When dealing with cultures that have little Christian influence, the question of what forms “church” should have is of utmost importance.  Not only do they need to be significant for worship, discipleship and service but they must also be sustainable and reproducible.

an expression of church was born

When I was visiting a people group in which there was no indigenous church, I had a visit from a young father who was the head of a “household church.”  His four year son, David, was with him and during the visit David was encouraged to tell us Bible stories and pray for us.  The joy of listening to this child speak of Jesus and pray in his name was not just because of the faith evident in that family, but because of what it represented in terms of ongoing impact.  Their “church” was not an organization that was formed by Christians gathering together to initiate a local congregation.  Instead, the organization of this man’s extended family existed before they became believers.  When Jesus became lord of their household, this man took on spiritual leadership and an expression of church was born.  It is sustainable, because it is based on a structure of the extended family that continues from generation to generation, and his child’s recitation is evidence of that potential. It is also reproducible within other families in that culture because it conforms to cultural norms.  This is not the only expression of church needed in that people group, but it is encouraging to see the missiological priority on significance and function in building up the people of God, rather than elevating one organizational form as “church.”


If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Peter Shaukat in an interview by Ellen Livingood in Catalyst Interchange Postings April 2009 Vol 4 Issue 4 Business as Missions: How Do Church and Agency Connect? P. 1.
  • 2 For clarity, this article uses “traditional church” or follows Shaukat’s terminology of using “local congregation” for the popular understanding of “church” in the Canadian context, while employing “expressions of church” to include other organizations, eg. “parachurch” organizations, that also demonstrate aspects of fellowship, service and discipleship.
  • 3 Barna, G. 2005. Revolution:
    Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary
    . Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale.
  • 4 Myers, J. 2007. Organic Community: creating a place where people naturally connect. Grand Rapids: Baker. P. 62.  Also see further explanation in The Pastor as Spiritual Coach II.
  • 5 Tim Lewis quoted in Kim, Chong. Going ‘beyond the edges of the kingdom’ in Mission Frontiers March-April 2009 p. 7


77. The Pastor as Spiritual Coach (Part II)

see also The Pastor as Spiritual Coach (Part I)

From Programs to Contextualization

Who is to blame: the Congregation or the Leadership?

spiritual-maturity1In my responsibility of providing outreach and missions resources to churches, I have come across a curious phenomenon. My experience is that there are a number of people in church leadership who do not have a positive view of the spiritual maturity and commitment of their congregation.  Comments such as “a mile wide and an inch deep,” “20% do 80% of the work,” “half an hour after the sermon is over they don’t remember it, let alone apply it,”  “they don’t take advantage of opportunities to go deeper,” and “they don’t know their Bibles” have been expressed in my hearing.  Why this is curious is that my experience with the people of God in our churches has given me quite the opposite opinion.  I have been constantly impressed, motivated and encouraged by the level of spiritual maturity and commitment to Christ in the people I meet.

leadership-developed-visionI have an uncomfortable suspicion that a significant part of this negative view of congregations stems from an inadequate approach to ministry by the leadership.  The average church organization, whether labeled traditional, seeker sensitive or missional, has a leadership-driven program which members of the church are encouraged to support.  The response by the congregation tends to be less than expected, especially if support has been indicated by a congregational vote.1 Priorities of attendance, giving and evangelistic participation are not at the level the leadership considers appropriate, and so the congregation is judged to be lacking in spiritual maturity. However, involvement in church organized activities is unlikely to prove to be a good measurement of spiritual maturity.

An alternate approach to ministry

member-developed-visions2A couple of months ago, Karen and I proposed to our church an approach to ministry that focuses on the visions and desires of the individuals in the congregation.  Rather than developing a church wide vision and unified program in which all are expected to participate, the pastor acts as spiritual coach to empower believers in their desire to become intentional and authentic followers of Christ within their day-to-day lives.  Instead of encouraging people to “get involved in the church program,” the focus becomes “how can I be a support to you as you serve Jesus in your daily life?” The role of the spiritual coach is to help believers develop spiritually synergistic relationships with people both inside and outside of the church, as opposed to a posture of attending church events or participating in church programs. Instead of approaching people with the call to “join our team,” the pastor asks, “How can I be a part of your ministry?” I believe that such a change in focus would alter the perspective of pastors as they witness people’s concerns, prayers and struggles in their God given role of being salt and light.

Organic Community

help them become more intentional Christians within their current life setting

There are a number of writers who view the church in a similar way.  In his excellent book, Organic Community,2 Joseph Myers encourages leaders to make “the shift from programmer (master planner) to environmentalist (one who follows the principles of organic order to create and shape environments)” (34).  Rather than adopting “models and programs that force prescriptive patterns onto our congregations, … [o]rganic order suggests there are many patterns we can use to connect to God and others.” (40-41).  People are already living according to patterns and rhythms that make sense to them.  Instead of calling them out of a context that defines their life so that they can serve in an organization driven program, it would be more satisfying and impacting to help them become more intentional Christians within their current life setting and relationships.  Myers says, “[A] master plan tries to manufacture life, whereas organic order is an invitation to live.” (28) There is wisdom in encouraging church leadership to start where individual people live, and discover the ways that God is working in and through them. Synergy is created when people are encouraged and guided in the tasks they have initiated themselves, whereas pulling people into a centralized structure can result in frustration.  In this organic dynamic, the scorecard is not attendance at events, but people’s stories.  “Story is the measurement tool of community” (80).  It is the narratives of those who have been impacted through their relationship with people in the church that measures the life of the community.

Another complaint I have come across from church leadership is that a major weakness of the congregation is that people are self-centered.  The claim is that they come to church events with a clientele mentality looking to have their needs met.   However, from my experience, I would agree with Myers that this perspective is a  “misunderstanding that people generally operate from a position of ‘What’s in it for me?’”  He further states that he does not find the presumption to be true, “Most people are not primarily selfish or self-serving.” When people are asked to participate in a project,

organic-communityI do not see that people are asking, “What’s in it for me?” Instead, they want to know, “Why me?” This is not a self-serving question. It is a self-identifying, individual question.

People participate as individuals. They are interested in why they – specifically – are being asked.  They want to know that you have chosen them first and foremost because of who they are, not to fulfill a strategic master plan.

‘Why me?’ comes from a deep desire to live beyond one’s self. A person wants to contribute in concrete ways, possibly in ways that only he or she could.” (62)

I believe that the reason many believers do not participate in the programs of their church is not that they are ignoring their responsibility, but because they are not convinced that those ministries are God’s calling for them. Imagine a ministry mentality that begins and ends with the dreams and visions of the individual members.  Rather than searching for gifted people in the congregation to fulfill the needs of an overall church program, the focus is to create connections and provide support that guides believers to discover the calling of God in their lives.

Missional Renaissance

The reluctance of believers to serve church programs is not an indication that they are spiritual immature

Reggie McNeal has one helpful chapter in his book, Missional Renaissance,3 that deals with this congregation-focused orientation.  He begins with a personal anecdote during his days as the leader of a programmatic church.  One day he asked himself, “Are people better off for being a part of this church, or are they just tireder (sic) and poorer?” He realized that he did not know. He “could tell how busy people were with church but not how their lives were going” (89).  In a major shift from this pattern of ministry, he calls leadership to recognize and conform their ministry to the fact that people do not want to fit their lives into the program of the church (96).  The reluctance of believers to serve church programs is not an indication that they are spiritually immature or selfish.  Instead, he claims that “God has created a cultural milieu where people are clamoring to grow…. [So] get out of the church business and into the people business.” (111).  In praising one pastor who has changed from a program director to someone who empowers and releases the people in the congregation, McNeal says,

miss-ren-mcnealHe plays the essential part of empowering leaders to pursue their callings and passions. He strengthens others’ obedience by creating a culture where they can say yes to the Spirit…. [All] the ministries he told me about happened away from the church. This same pastor went on to say, “I wouldn’t have a clue how to do what they do.” The very thought that clergy could preside over these kingdom expressions is ludicrous. Yet many congregational leaders do not trust people to minister out of their sight. (140)

Spiritual Coaching Description

Steve Ogne and Tim Roehl provide a good definition for the spiritual coaching of leaders that pastors can use to create the kind of environment that Myers and McNeal are promoting, “Coaches help people develop their God-given potential so that they grow personally and make a valuable contribution to the kingdom of God.” Ogne goes on to underscore the essential principles (with alterations to emphasize the application to the pastor as spiritual coach),

  1. transformissional_coaching_book“Coaches help people.” Coaching is a relationship…, not a program. It is focused on the [believer], not the program. You coach a [believer], not his or her ministry….
  2. “[D]evelop their God-given potential.” The potential comes from God, not the coach. A coach helps draw out the vision, values, gifts, calling, and passion God has already placed in the [believer].
  3. “[S]o that they grow personally.” Like mentoring, coaching is concerned with the personal (including … family), spiritual, and professional growth….
  4. “[M]ake a valuable contribution” Coaches help [believers] accomplish something for God. Coaches help [believers] identify and fulfill their specific calling and contribution.
  5. “[T]he kingdom of God. ” The kingdom of God is far greater than any one congregation…. [A pastor as spiritual coach will] ultimately equip individuals within their faith communities to engage and transform the culture as representatives of the kingdom of God.4

Spiritual Coaching as a means of Contextualization

The kind of thinking that promotes spiritual coaching resonates with missiological principles.  The temptation of leaders is to take control of the ministry and make decisions that bring immediate results. Programs are implemented that exhibit characteristics the church leadership wants to promote in the church.  The longer and more difficult road, which treats the people and environment being ministered to with respect, is to listen, discover and respond to the rhythms and networks that already exist as a natural part of people’s lives.  This is an important application of the principle of contextualization, an essential methodology for the cross-cultural minister. A problem arises in the North American church sub-culture when this principle is ignored.  Rather than altering the well-known traditional patterns of doing church to fit the ever changing rhythms of life of the community, the response of leadership can be to blame those who refuse to break their rhythms for the sake of a programmatic approach to ministry.  But many believers are not being lazy or spiritually immature.  Instead, they are seeking ways to bring Christ into their lives, rather than sacrificing activities that are fulfilling for the sake of a master plan that does not satisfy their spiritual hunger.

Mark spends part of his time coaching churches for evangelism and missions.  If you would like to contact him please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 For a description of the 4 meanings of a “yes” vote see The Pastor as Spiritual Coach (part I).
  • 2 Myers, J. 2007. Organic Community: creating a place where people naturally connect. Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • 3 McNeal, R. 2009. Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard for the Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Boss
  • 4 Ogne, S. & Roehl, T. 2008. Transformissional Coaching: Empowering Leaders in a Changing Ministry World. Nashville: B&H Pub., pp. 26-27.

73. Expressions of church

“Church” is a word that I am frustrated with.  It is often used without clarity concerning what is being referred to.  We construct buildings that we call “churches.”  We attend a service on Sunday morning by “going to church.”  We have constitutions and statements of faith for the local “church.”  The “church” is discussed as an organization.  It is defined as the people of God.  We talk about the universal “church.”  But perhaps the most contentious aspect comes when issues of membership in the “church,” or faithfulness to the “church,” or concerns about the authority of the “church,” are discussed.

There seems to be an assumption in some circles that what is commonly referred to as the “local church” – an organization with a board consisting of pastors and deacons together with a congregation that meets for worship on Sunday morning – is the proper representation of the New Testament intent.  Thus parachurch organizations, even though they are heavily involved in fulfilling the Great Commission, quickly deny that they are a “church,” while local churches, some of whom choose the maintenance of a status quo over redemptive living, view themselves as the authorized association to which Christians must belong in order to fulfill Jesus’ intention for his followers.

First-order versus Second-order Criteria

I find such delineations somewhat unhelpful.  It seems that a particular form of doing church is being promoted as pre-eminent and legitimate based on second-order criteria, rather than first-order. That is, a certain structure is required (pastors, deacons, etc.) along with a traditional agenda (e.g., regular Sunday worship service with sermons and songs) in order to be a true New Testament church.  The first-order issues, such as discipleship, participation in God’s mission to the world, commitment to the way of Christ, and prayer, are practiced in many settings both inside and outside the local church, without being definitive in our understanding of “church.”

It is like defining a family by the type of house it lives in and each person’s status, rather than according to the interactions and relationships that provide meaning to the members. It is puzzling to me that second-order criteria should be the factor that elevates one expression of “church” as superior. In fact, in the minds of many, the “local church” model of “church” has a divine authority over other institutions and gatherings, even though the latter may have greater involvement in the first-order concerns of the kingdom of God.

Expressions of Church

any activity that fulfills in some way a community aspect of God’s people is an expression of church

There is a way of thinking about “church” that I have found particularly helpful.  Rather than focusing on a particular organized group that is referred to as a “local church,” I like to talk about “expressions of church.”  That is, any activity that fulfills in some way a community aspect of God’s people is an expression of church.  A morning worship service is an expression of church, as is a Sunday School class, an Alpha meeting or a church board meeting.  They are meetings in which people are seeking to live out the implications of being the body of Christ.  Two friends meeting for prayer is also an expression of church, as is a committee meeting for Young Life, or a Bible study with Campus Crusade, or a staff meeting with our mission, FEBInternational.  Whenever and wherever Christians meet together to express, and to further the kingdom of God, that is an expression of church.  Christians who gather together for God’s purposes, whether in camp ministry, missions or a Sunday morning worship service, are an expression of the body of Christ.

Focusing on expressions of church does tend to ignore the important aspect of ongoing commitment and identification with a group of fellow believers. Identity is a key strength that validates and sustains the local church organizations important to our fellowship of churches and should not be treated lightly.  But speaking of “expressions of church” does help to clarify the conversation about “church” and ensure that first-order concerns remain the priority over second-order forms.  It provides a level playing field for discussion of all that God is doing in his mission of redemption to the world, without a priori assumptions of priority of one form of the body of Christ.

The Form is Negotiable

This perspective derives from my experience in missions.  Our primary role while working in Pakistan with FEBInternational was in evangelism and church planting.  As a result there would often be lengthy discussions concerning what “church” should look like in the Sindhi context.  We began to realize that there are many legitimate ways of “doing church.”  In fact, the form is not only negotiable, but it must remain secondary to the first-order concerns. Once the primary concerns of the kingdom are established, then many forms of the church will be revealed as people live out the gospel in their social contexts.  The primary goal is to see Christ become Lord within the prevailing social structures, because out of this a sustainable and reproducible “local church” can emerge; one that not only provides a core identity as the body of Christ, but also maintains those first-order expressions that are the essence of Christ-centered living. Currently the structure that has the most potential among the Sindhi people is that of household churches: Believers who have a Christian identity within their own socially stable family organization through which expressions of church can be observed.

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Mt 16:18). When we focus on the first-order concerns of the kingdom by building each other up in love so that we can find the full expression of Christ’s transforming power in our day to day lives, then we will experience and express what Jesus meant, and it will be those first-order concerns that will affirm our identity within the body of Christ.

If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.