A Failed Missionary Strategy

October 12th, 2011

It has been noticed by many that in the Book of Acts the Apostle Paul had an obvious missionary strategy—start house churches in major cities that exist on major travel and trade routes, either roads or seaports. Then disciple and commission those churches to take the gospel to the surrounding countryside and establish house churches there. As those communities of faith were discipled they too went out and established more Christian communities.

The strategy here should be obvious: establish communities in places with population, ease of travel, and resources, and then move out to the hinterlands to found new churches. If someone in today's world were to do some kind of complicated sociological analysis of how to go about such a mission, the person doing the study would conclude that Paul's strategy was indeed the best and most effective one available. In other words, the strategy is to preach and live the gospel for conversion, found new communities of faith, disciple those communities, and then send them out to preach and live the gospel in order to establish new churches. This strategy makes such perfect sense it is hard to quibble with it.

But that is exactly what many in the 21st century Western Church are doing—they are taking issue with Paul's missionary strategy—not in words, but in their continued failure to have a missionary strategy at all. That lack of strategy is appropriately called "staying put." When one looks over our cities and towns and villages one all too often finds churches that are doing their own thing in isolation from other church communities. We think the answer to our decline is to simply start new programs and wait and hope for those on the outside to come charging through the doors. Others believe that they simply need a younger preacher to attract the youth, or that if they only had excellent sermons each week from a master of oratory, that the people will come flocking in to hear the dynamic word. In believing these kinds of "strategies" will be effective we reveal something deeper about ourselves—that we really do not want to be in mission to those around us. We want them to come to us without having to go out to them. No, we do not actually say that nor do we believe that about ourselves. Our intentions are sincere to be sure. But staying put in our ecclesial ghettos and treating our buildings more like fortresses than outposts on the frontier is not an effective missionary strategy. It has shown itself to be a failure.

Moreover, that we Christians view our own individual congregation as its own little self-contained church apart from being in ministry with other congregations is a betrayal of the ecclesiology put forth in the New Testament. We like to say in our creeds and in our ecumenical affirmations that we are all one church, but we have very little to demonstrate the truth of that missionally. We consider the congregation down the street to be the competition instead of co-laborers for the same Kingdom that Jesus is bringing to pass in this world. And once we view other churches as our competition, forgetting that the real enemies are the principalities and powers that would undo God's plans, that is definitive proof that the church has lost its mission that Jesus gave to it just prior to his ascension.

It is time to return to the New Testament and take a page out of St. Paul's missionary playbook and go out into the communities and the neighborhoods as well as partner with other congregations to be the one church we have been called to be for the sake of the world.

That's something else we seem to have forgotten—that the church does indeed exist for the sake of the world.

Allan R. Bevere is a United Methodist pastor in Akron, OH. He blogs at AllanBevere.com.
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