When mission grows up…the church?

Too often the efforts of church planting and evangelism in unreached places, goes by the term ‘missions.’  But when a group of believers is sufficiently gathered, we then say that a ‘church’ has been established.  The linking of terms in a before-after type of relationship has often been propagated by mission agencies themselves.

But is this a good way of talking about things? When mission grows up, does it become a church?

The problem with this is well considered by Hoedemaker’s summary of a missiologist from the last generation,

“Can a development of mission into church really be considered a maturing? Is it not, rather, a betrayal of the fundamental missionary meaning of “church” (the church happens as the Gospel of the kingdom is brought to the world)? “The Legacy of J.C. Hoekendijk (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 19 no 4 O 1995, p 166-170)

Don’t many of us feel that way now, after the explosion of the missional church, after the critique of the inward focused church?  It’s the church really always already mission?

But it seems Hoekendijk, and others who follow him, overreact.  Not in their criticism, but in its result.

The criticism is right.  We ought not separate the church from mission, and mission doesn’t create a church entity, but rather the church is such as engaged in mission.

But the result of this theological emphasis tends to absolutize, or abstract, from the real, historical processes of, dare I say, actually planting a church.  While mission isn’t some great big arrow that points toward a church building (like the picture above), there is a necessary process of maturation and development.  It is this process, that while unfortunate, mission agencies hope to convey in describing a shift from a ‘mission’ to a ‘church’.

We must understand that while everything is mission, or that the church is missional, there still is the initial planting, the reaping, and the sending out to plant some more.  In the past the first part was considered missions and the latter parts a maturing church.  Does this mean a selling out to institutionalism?  Maybe.  Does it always mean this?  No.

It just means that some plant (a missionary, an evangelists, one gifted with apostolic fervor), and others reap (a shepherd, a prophet, a teacher).  All the gifts are used toward the maturing of the church for mission.  And at some point, a new church will begin to send out mature missionaries to plant somewhere else.  But to affirm this process is not to deny the missionary nature of the church.

Indeed, as Hoedemaker states concerning Hoekendijk,

there may be traces of an original evangelical spirituality in this suspicion, akin to the revivalistic mistrust of all ecclesial establishment.

I’m all for revival and pray for them myself, but I too worry of this too oft knee-jerk reaction against the establishment as a pietistic impulse.  And certainly, while John Wesley was saved by pietists, he also organized his movement and changed English-speaking ecclesial landscape.