Some missionaries go up to a mountain village to evangelize secluded cattle ranchers. For a day or two, these self-invited Christian strangers tell a number of individuals and households the good news and a few Bible stories—as far as their language ability will allow them. And then, miraculously, some of them say they want to follow Christ!
What if the missionaries then leave? What will happen with these cattle ranchers? All their previous knowledge of organized religion has to do with esoteric monks living cloistered in a temple. Many of their daily spiritual concerns have to do with abiding by the rules of the animistic spirit they believe lives in their wood-burning stove. How will they form themselves into a church?
That's partially what this article is about—the need to model the church for the unchurched nations. We need to be not only the church for the lost, however—all Christians also need to be church members in order to follow Christ.
Missionaries cannot be expected to do the work of the church well without first being established in a local church.
Missionaries must establish a conscious identity as all-in church members in the place where they are sent. This is not to disrespect any responsibility to one's sending church, but it is to understand and respect the command to continue to gather with other believers wherever we are (Heb 10:25). Missionaries cannot be expected to do the work of the church well without first being established in a local church.
Going With or Without Christ’s Authority
Perhaps the most important reason to establish oneself as a member of a local church is that this is where Christ has vested his authority in this age. Jesus lays down this principle of church authority in Matthew 18:
. . . And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them. (Matt 18:17–19)
Some will invariably ask, How can I be a part of a church if I am sent with a small team to an unreached frontier location? Fortunately, Christ tells us the minimum number of people who need to gather in this manner—two! Two or three is the minimum number of Christians it takes to covenant together as a conscious, committed local gathering of the visible church.
It is this very passage that Jesus alludes to when he gives his Great Commission. Because all authority has been given to Christ, we go and make disciples of the nations, baptizing them into the visible church, and not forgetting his promise “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). Though I cannot unpack these passages here (about which whole books have been written by people more articulate than me), suffice it to say we are not left to go to the nations in isolation, in our own strength and authority. We ought to go knowingly in Christ’s authority as part of the visible church, where two or three gather in his name.
Take Advantage of Every Spiritual Gift
Let’s get very practical. When believers choose not to gather and live together as a church, they are forgoing some of the most tangible resources available to them. Why should any believer forfeit the fellowship of the saints, who covenant together to serve one another, pray for each other, and counsel and edify one another through all of their collective and various gifts? But I fear this is commonplace. Based on limited personal experience, it seems easy on the field to subtly develop a myopic view of church that ends at the bounds of the sending agency’s team. In the year I spent overseas, there were entire families in my tiny house church with whom I did not share a meal once and several seasoned, faithful men I never had a quick lunch with. That was truly my loss. Don't repeat my mistake.
When believers choose not to gather and live together as a church, they are forgoing some of the most tangible resources available to them.
In 1 Corinthians 12:21, Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need you.’” Most of us are aware of the dangers of acting as a "lone ranger" missionary, but have we fully considered that the biblical antidote to this impulse is not a team or a band but a church? There simply is no clearer example given in the New Testament, Acts or otherwise, for how we are to live together as ones called out from the world than Paul’s description of the church as a body.
Let’s all seek to be a unified, functioning body and gather where we are. Let’s be conscious members of a church, who lean on and build up one another.
Modeling the Church for the Unchurched
So let’s go back to where we started. Why do we need to model the church for the unchurched?
Our goal in going to the nations is this: to make disciples of Christ. We don't desire to make weak little sprouts from gospel seeds that whither as soon as any heat hits them. We want to make strong disciples, who have a strong root. We want to make sure they are branches connected to the vine (John 15:5). We want them to see themselves as living stones being built up into a temple (1 Pet 2:5). We want them to be members of a body that is growing up into maturity (Eph 4:11–16).
None of this will happen if they can't even see what the church is. I have used the phrase "the visible church" several times in this post, and that is precisely what a local church is. The principle is simply this: the nations will not reproduce what is invisible to them.
So before we go and try to do the work of the church, let's not forget to first be a church.
Jason Apon used to write for The Upstream Collective for a season under the pseudonym Andy Jansen. He holds an M.Div. from SBTS in Louisville, KY, and currently resides in Springdale, AR, with his wife, Annie, and their three-year-old twin boys. They are expecting a third boy in May.