Christian mission requires not only a mandate, such as the Great Commission of Matthew 28.18-20, but also a Church, communities of interconnected believers who embrace the missionary mandate and seek to accomplish it. One of the largest challenges to Christian mission in our era is the non-denominational church, disconnected to other churches and therefore unable to accomplish the mission, inevitably duplicating the efforts of others, and incapable of taking a long view of missions. The result is mission projects, short-term mission trips, a confusion as to what actually constitutes Christian mission rather than good works, unclear goals, mission ‘agencies’ instead of mission ‘societies’ that go beyond linking individuals with foreign ministry opportunities by actually having a clear vision of the mission that needs to be accomplished, and, worse, actual damage in ministry. I can think of one independent church that manages to avoid such problems—only one—and it is because the church exists primarily for the sake of international missions. Otherwise, I would lay the confusion about Christian missions largely at the feet of the independent church movement in the West.
Of course, we have to add a word about denominations in our day. The mainline denominations have gone or are going in a heretical direction. They are declining in number in the West, where the heresies flourish. And they have lost any sense of mission because they have equally lost any sense of the Gospel and of the need for conversion. Indeed, their heresies, whether Christological, soteriological, or moral, are directly connected to a vision of Christianity that has nothing to do with conversion: the Church’s goal is to accommodate itself to the culture, to be a positive influence of justice and mercy in the culture, but not to convert persons—a far too judgemental idea! The elephant in the room of the mainline denominations is Scripture, which can be made to support such a view of Christian faith only when tied down with the heaviest of chains and manipulated with cruel intent.
So, if non-denominational churches are not the answer, and if the old, mainline denominations are not the answer, our main hope for engaging in Christian missions lies with the newer denominations. Some came into existence by splitting off from the mainline denominations over a hundred years ago, and others are newly formed. They have often splintered as minor points of new teaching created irreparable rifts between overly self-important leaders. They have sometimes been formed because members were left church-less when they were evicted from their congregations, particularly in the early days of the Pentecostal movement (early 20th century). More recently, they have been formed because they have had no choice but to take their reform movement out of the mainline denomination. The largest Protestant Church in the world, the Anglican Communion, is currently forming various, alternative groupings—effectively ‘denominations,’ though internationally connected within Anglicanism—as a result of doctrinal heresies and false teaching about sexuality.
The question, or challenge, though, is, ‘Will these new denominations be successful in the work of the Church?’ Those that formed over unimportant rifts inevitably remain self-absorbed, closed, and fairly irrelevant. Those that formed in the early days of Pentecostalism typically had a strong missionary focus, and this is one of the positive reasons that Pentecostalism’s growth is worldwide (sadly, there are some negative reasons for growth as well—most especially, the Prosperity Gospel in some, not all, of the Pentecostal groups). Missionary outreach—global, costly, enthusiastic, Gospel-focussed, church-supported, Spirit-empowered missions—in Pentecostal denominations is one of the major stories of the Church in the 20th century. The newer denominations being formed out of reform movements in heretical mainline denominations, however, have largely been pressed into defining themselves in terms of orthodoxy and Scriptural authority. The challenge they face is much greater than simply being orthodox: they face the challenge of whether the missionary task will be woven into their fabric, become part of their DNA.
Churches need a missionary vision. Those that focus on being friendly and on having enjoyable community will both enjoy and struggle with their inward relationships. The main focus will be on getting along with one another—unity, love, compassion, and so forth. These are powerful forces that form community, but they beg the question why these cannot be found in other groups around the city—the orchestra, the YMCA, the football club, or the village pub. Those that focus on being orthodox will often offend people who cannot subscribe to their beliefs—major or minor—or they will create divisions among themselves over minor points of theology (often guess-work about the end times!). Yet the church is a community, and the church is a confessional community under authorities that determine doctrine and practice. Nevertheless, something more is needed for a healthy church, and that is a clear vision of purpose and an activity that demands time and effort—mission.
People committed to a mission find community in the common mission, even when they would not be likely to associate with one another for other reasons. Homogeneous groupings might be somewhat diversified through a focus on more integration of community or cultural practices, but they will be far better diversified by a focus on a common and essential mission. The educated and uneducated, the various ethnic groups, the young and old, male and female, can all pitch in to engage the pressing mission that the community has as its purpose, identity, and activity. People committed to a mission have to have a clear conviction of truth, of Biblical authority, and Christian doctrine, but they can lay aside less significant debates to focus on accomplishing the mission.
It is no wonder that the Holy Spirit is associated in Scripture with Christian unity, truth, and mission. Church unity without truth is false unity. Truth without mission is truth not worth proclaiming to those who do not know it. An overly meticulous concern for truth in inconsequential areas of theology leads to disunity, which fails to accomplish the mission of the Church. And unity as too narrow a goal for the Church will fail to recognise that there are those ‘outside’ who have not been reached through the Church’s mission. Indeed, missions—the Great Commission of the Church—is the genetic wiring in the body of Christ that produces organic unity and theological health. Is it part of your church’s DNA?