Restoring the Church’s Role in Missions

Basil Grafas
Friday, May 1st 2020
May/Jun 2020

I think about missions a lot. I am a pastor and a missionary, and I serve on a missions committee for a church I do not pastor. I think about it every day. I have been a Christian a lot longer: forty-six years. When I started reading the Bible back in 1973, something began to nag me. How Reformed Christians like me take part in missions does not seem to match what I see in my Bible. I know that was then and this is now, but it still bothers me.

Contrary to what some missionary “specialists” claim, it is easy enough to see that the heart of God’s mission to the world was the local churches. People like Paul went out and planted churches, but his work was always connected to the local church. We also saw churches connected to other churches in promoting the Great Commission. You have to do a great deal of mental gymnastics to avoid the plain sense of this.

That leads me to my dilemma. If that is the plain sense of things, what changed so dramatically that Reformed missions rarely looks like that now? A few smaller Reformed denominations get closer to the mark, but the vast majority of evangelicals (including Reformed churches) do not. For most, reality means mission agencies—denominational and otherwise—supported by a web of individuals, churches, trusts, and endowments. Local churches have little to do with the real lives of missionaries and their work, let alone exercise oversight of them.

The “whys” are not mysterious. Popular Protestant histories of missions move from the origins of missions in the early church to the expansion of a hierarchical Christianity, which gradually grew corrupt as it embraced Christendom, forcing a Reformation that led to Protestantism, denominations, post-reformational dogmatism, internecine theological disputes, fragmented modernism, and the quenching of the evangelistic spirit. Consequently, voluntary missions societies sprang up. The results were spectacular. Christianity exploded globally in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as Western Christianity put in place an apparatus that worked. These days, we tweak that basic apparatus. We have confronted the colonial mind-set (at least in theory) and sent it packing. End of story. Well, not quite. I am still not satisfied.

Did we outgrow the Bible? Did the foundational structures that emerged in the New Testament become obsolete in the modern world? Alternative histories of missions, such as those popularized by Ralph Winter and Bob Blincoe, of autonomous roving missionary bands of evangelists and monastics muddy the picture with their fictional accounts. Let’s keep it basic. Missions emerged from the early church, and the connection between missions and the local church was certain. Did anything change to cancel the foundational truth of that connection? I do not see it. Why then shouldn’t we embrace it again?

A standard and sensible response is, in Thomas Wolfe’s words, “You can’t go home again.” Things have gone so far down a different trajectory that we cannot possibly double back and start all over—not without blowing up everything we have to make what we do now align better with a biblical model. We might also add that the church is not obligated to maintain the same dynamics it exercised at the dawn of its existence and the bursting out into the world of missions to the Gentiles.

Lest we become too fascinated by the relentlessness of our own logic, let me suggest a few reasons why we should not dismiss my fundamental conundrum. I will confine myself to two thoughts. First, we need to rethink the way we tell the story of missions. I mean, when we explore Christian history, we need to reconsider how we address missions as a component. For example, mission histories, compared to other histories, are a modern thing. Missions was not spotlighted and isolated as a separate field of study in earlier studies. Christian history is ancient (I still read my Eusebius from time to time). Focused missions’ histories are a twentieth-century phenomenon. Latourette, Neill, Walls, Peters, and other standard works try to place missions within a larger context, but the focus naturally falls on missions. The result is the separation of missions from the story of the church. We cannot helpfully segregate missions and the local church. They are unavoidably related.

Let me illustrate. I commonly think of God’s mission to the world as having three dimensions. I liken these to the three strands of fabric that create an oriental rug. Normal rugs have three threads. They have a vertical thread called the warp and a horizontal thread called the weft, and at the intersections of warp and weft, a pile emerges by tying a knot at the intersection of the first two. Another way to say it is that warp and weft are a foundation from which the pile emerges. Here is how I define each dimension. The warp is the visible church’s engagement in covenantal worship to the Triune God in word and Spirit. The weft is the unity and catholicity of the church, reflecting its identity as being made in the image of God. This is not a denominational identity, but it is a koinonia (communion) emerging from shared identity in Christ and shared core doctrine.1 The pile is the springing up of mission activity that comes from churches that live out a holy, set-apart identity in exclusive worship and devotion to God.

Taken together, we have one holy catholic and apostolic church. That is the church engaged in missions. One final note: These four characteristics of the church were never intended to describe what might be but what already is. Therefore, missions happens when we live out an identity God has already created in us.

The implications of this are obvious. We cannot isolate missions from the state—the health—of local churches, either sending churches or receiving churches. It also means that what happens in the field, wherever it is, must influence senders and receivers. It means that however we innovate locally impacts everyone else. I remember a conference of missionaries and national Christians from a Muslim background. After listening to Western missionaries tell stories, a church planter spoke. He said he knew that the missionaries considered the nationals’ countries as “laboratories,” but it would be good if they consulted the “lab rats” once in a while. That stung because it was true.

So, as part of understanding how we the church should engage in missions, we need to see ourselves as we are. We typically observe missions through a telephoto lens. We need to look at it through a wide-angle lens. We cannot determine the health of missions without looking through the lens of the church itself. Here are ten observations that directly impact the mission of the church:

  1. Westerners are slaves to the marketing gods. We are mostly marketing, not manufacturing; advertising, not producing.
  2. We are functional gnostics who place our faith in the mystical expertise of specialists rather than do the work ourselves.
  3. We are mired in the greatest identity crisis that Christians have faced in over seventeen hundred years.
  4. The local church is fast becoming indistinguishable from the unbelieving world that surrounds it. We are becoming irrelevant to the point of invisibility.
  5. We have lost our fundamental identity as reflections and representatives, no matter what, to the people we live among.
  6. The gap between the Western church and the global, suffering, persecuted church is growing rather than shrinking.
  7. The short-term mission trips we make are not bridging gaps, neither between nationals and us nor between the generations that went and those that watch.
  8. Vast sums go to the maintenance of missions with shrinking returns.
  9. The creation of doctrine and theology has decentralized from the local church into autonomous or semi-autonomous agencies (denominational or otherwise), schools, and publications.
  10. We are blind to the new world. We still think of missions as something that healthy Western churches do for the good of people somewhere else.

Missions must start with a restoration of the church’s core identity, not freedom from it. Some think the problem is that missions is too answerable to the local church. When the concept of mission partnerships (which I will discuss a little later) surfaced, the objections cascaded out of missions organizations and missionaries. It was claimed that local churches were not competent to evaluate what missionaries did. That was true enough, but it was also self-fulfilling. If parachurches—and to a lesser degree, denominational structures—dominate missions, churches will eventually become incompetent. The question is, “Is that how we want it?” Better yet, “Is that the way it should be?” Not if the Bible is to be our guide.

But what of the claim that we can’t go home again, given the immense apparatus of missions that rose from the failures of visible churches in eighteenth-century England by embracing voluntary societies? What do Reformed Presbyterians do now that the nineteenth-century church decided in favor of denominational agency authority over missions, rather than local churches and presbyteries?2 Should we undo everything that came because of historical decisions? Can we? I do not know. I know that there are things we can do that do not necessitate all-or-nothing approaches.

If the one holy catholic and apostolic church is a koinonia engaged in missions, can we confirm that identity without convening universal church councils eradicating denominationalism? I think we can if we do a bit of historical reimaging. I believe that we have two historical identities that could serve as an Ariadne’s thread out of the labyrinth separating the local church from missions. We have already addressed one identity: the early church. I think the other identity we need to embrace is that of the Protestant Reformation.

Missions historians sometimes claim that the Protestant Reformation had no commitment to missions. Reformation historians such as Brad Gregory and Carlos Eire say as much. Missions historians say it more strongly. They hold the Reformation up to serious criticism, particularly as it contrasts to the foreign missions exploits of Franciscans and Jesuits taking Christianity to South America, Asia, and Africa.

When reconstructing history, one should not leave out essential things. For example, Roman Catholics embraced foreign missions because they thought they were the church of Jesus Christ. The church, in its quest to reaffirm its legitimacy, dug up Rome to find the bones of martyrs that proved its authenticity, even as it was persecuting and killing Protestants by the thousands. Bones, missions, and the stake. All went hand in hand in confirming identity. The Protestants saw it all differently. They knew they were churches on missions. The persecution by Roman Catholics in the Counter-Reformation proved it. Why were they so energetically persecuted? There were two reasons. First, they refused to recant their new faith. More than that, they treated Europe as a mission field. They committed themselves to evangelizing the Roman Catholic world.

The lion’s share of that work was done by planting churches throughout Europe. The persecution eventually limited the results, but we should consider how spectacular the scope was. The Reformation consumed all of Western, Northern, Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe. Strongly Catholic nations today—such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Poland—were platforms for Protestant church planting and evangelism. Even the Ottoman Europe experienced the reformational movement. Protestants aggressively planted churches that spread missionary evangelism. They did it before the denominationalism that emerged in 1648 after the Treaty of Westphalia existed. They did it by criss-crossing Europe with cooperative missions. Believers in one place supported the missions efforts of believers in another. The Protestant refugee crisis caused by slaughter became the shiny tip of the spear of missions as well. Nothing better embodied the spirit of early church missions than the Reformation.

So, why not now? If we cannot undo denominations and the modern era of missions, can we learn to recover that reformational paradigm? I know we should, and I think we can. It is possible to work toward an embrace of the work of missions in the local church. Can we recreate cross-border connectional missions (what I call global barn raising) between doctrinally like-minded Christians? I am sure we can. We are already doing it.

One of my hats is that of the chairman of the Bangladesh partnership. At present, nine Reformed churches partner with the Presbyterian Church of Bangladesh (PCB)—a growing denomination of Reformed Muslim converts—to see church planting flourish, initially in Bangladesh but now in a way that helps all of us attend to God’s mission where we live and work. It is, as it was in the Reformation, an omnidirectional relationship. Everyone pitches in to see the gospel advance through church planting. We sank most of the effort into getting a denomination planted in hard Muslim soil. Everyone contributed materially, with prayer, monetary resources, and by going. In fact, you cannot be one of us unless you commit all three to the work. The PCB also comes here, at least once a year. That has two advantages. It allows nationals to tell us how they strategize and execute missions strategy in their own context. The PCB also speaks into our church planting and evangelism. We do not presume that what we do in the United States is at all superior to what they are doing there. We can’t. We do it with them.

In understanding how they go about church planting in a climate of persecution and suffering, they serve as mirrors to us—reflecting to us what our true identities in Christ really are—and we become learners. If the ten observations I shared earlier about us are true, then we need all the help we can get. We listen to one another because we have earned the right. Money cannot buy that. Most missions partnerships are, in my experience, little more than sanctified business contracts. Not ours. We have a fourteen-year story of sacrificing for one another.

The Bengalis have a word for that: Bhai. It is the word for “brother,” but it has layers of meaning. At the surface, it may refer to another countryman. Slightly deeper, it is used between believers, as is common for us. But beyond these is a connotation that means far more. It is the meaning assigned to relationships that involve life and death. You have to earn that personally. You have to sacrifice to get it. Character is at its base. Not everyone in our partnership has gone that far yet, but it exists at the very core of our koinonia. Who would not want that, other than perhaps the poor deluded souls who are sure they know what they are doing and do not need help? If you want to find that core, you have to listen to our stories. I think you will understand the difference.

Churches that engage in missions this way know they—and not just their money—make a difference. They understand what they do and why. They know where they fit in. They know what they believe, what is taught, and what they practice. If missionaries are part of the partnership (though never at the center), then the church knows who they are, what they do, and how they can also come along with them. It is a design for working with, not working for or working through. Agencies, as convenient as they are, rob the church of its identity. Partnerships restore it.

Basil Grafas is the pen name of an American missionary working overseas.

  1. None of the ancient ecumenical creeds simplistically associated “catholicity” with “universal.” The designation was not simply geographical, but it identified genuine communion between believers. Creeds likely found their origins in baptismal formulas. In other words, what must you affirm in order to be baptized as a Christian in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  2. See Kenneth Joseph Foreman, Jr., “The Debate on the Administration of Missions Led by James Henley Thornwell in the Presbyterian Church 1839–1861,” 2 vols. (PhD Diss., Princeton Theological Seminary, 1977).
Friday, May 1st 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology