We must not send missionaries (especially church planters) to the nations who do not love the local church. If their position is the way we’ve done church all along is deeply flawed, then I would suggest they are at great risk of falling into deeply unhelpful, even dangerous, trajectories. How will they reproduce what they have never seen nor lived? Yes, God is gracious and sometimes missionaries are able to plant healthy churches moving purely from the page into reality, having never experienced a healthy church back home (I know some like this!). But anyone experienced in mentoring and ministry knows the utter importance of modeling. And even with modeling, we tend to underrate the importance of soaking, marinating, sitting, loving, absorbing and “catching” a deep affection for the local church. To truly love her, you must actually sit with her a while and come to know her.
There are many reasons why I thank God for our sending church in Kentucky. They are gospel-explicit in their prayers, songs, and preaching. They have a heart to welcome in those from all cultures and to send out church planters and missionaries far and wide. They model healthy congregationalism and plurality of elders. They are long-suffering with the struggling and serious about raising up men of conviction to lead the church. But among these things, I also thank the Lord for this church because it was when I was a member there that I truly learned to love the local church.
Yes, for a number of years I loved the nations, but I did not yet love the Church. Rather, I did not yet love the local church. I grew up a missionary kid. As such I grew up in between lots of different churches. Leadership changed multiple times at my parent’s sending church. On furloughs we visited many supporting churches. We ourselves were involved in multiple national churches when my father was alive – three different churches every Sunday when I was a four year old. Then when it was just my mom and my brothers, we plugged in as members at a national church, looking to serve and grow as we were able, yet still not quite able to be all in. The missionary life is often one of transition and different kinds of connections to at least several churches. This naturally risks a decreasing sense of the importance of the local church. Or at least an atypical orientation to the local church that can have strange effects upon those tasked with planting them.
I first sensed a call to the nations while in high school, and this was confirmed when I was a freshman in college in Minneapolis. At that time I had gotten my first taste of what membership in a vibrant and healthy church could look like – and it was amazing. But after nine months I was off to the Middle East, membership classes completed, but membership not finalized. Those nine months were long enough to get a taste of healthy church, but not long enough to be all in. Not enough to be inoculated against the house-church-only ideology and insider methodology that I would later be drawn towards. I was, because of the bulk of my experience, still too open to the idea that the way we’ve done church all along is deeply flawed. It was also 2008, when things in the Emerging and Emergent church movements were nearing their high water mark. Conversations on rethinking church were all over Christian blogosphere and dominating new church planting books. I was amazed at the new and burgeoning house churches I was seeing in my overseas context and for the first time wrestling with the problems of doing traditional church in a persecution context. This, paired with certain methodology books and conversations, sent me over the edge. On my return to the US, my words to a mentor were, “I’m done with the way we do church in America.”
Upon that return to the US I spent a semester doing house church in the US. It was a very valuable experience, but it continued to affirm my trajectory. The traditional churches I visited in that small college town also strengthened my resolve to do church differently. It was only when I visited a close friend, at what would become my future church in Kentucky, that my church convictions began to be a little shaken. I remember looking around at the mid-sized congregation deeply engaged in a gospel-explicit worship song together and thinking, this isn’t quite the passivity that I’ve been claiming always takes place in “big church.” The members were also inviting me to move down to their city to help them reach out to Muslim refugees. More troubling non-passivity. In fact, as I got to know them they actually seemed more skilled at fleshing out the priesthood of all believers than most house churches I had seen. But they have a building! Astaghfurallah! After moving, I started visiting that church, thinking that even though I still had serious doubts about this methodology of church, this was a place where at least they were rock solid on the gospel – which in spite of some fuzziness I still knew deep down was more important than methodology.